Letter from the Editor: On Completing Twenty Years

posted in: Editorial, June 2010, Opinion | 0

What you are holding in your hands is the 240th issue of Environment Hawai`i. It represents the completion of our 20th year of continuous publication.

Think of it. Twenty years, an entire generation, of grinding out a monthly newsletter. Few publications make it that long and Teresa Dawson and I are thrilled that, with your support, we’ve come this far.

Environment Hawai`i began as a response to the dearth of serious environmental reporting in Hawai`i’s newspapers. That lack, a small crevasse in 1990, has widened into a canyon today. The number of dedicated environmental reporters at the state’s daily newspapers can be counted on the fingers of one maimed hand. The coverage given over to environmental issues is limited mainly to high-profile controversies (Honolulu rail, for example), problems of wide concern (Waimanalo Gulch, curbside recycling), and rewrites of agency press releases.

Beat reporting is out the window, so far as the environment is concerned, and investigative reporting of any kind is perched on the ledge. As publishers pursue profits instead of stories, articles that take time and experience to develop are replaced by copy that is cheap. Cheap, as experienced, top-union-scale reporters are pushed out the door and replaced by newbies. Cheap, as copy editors, librarians, and fact checkers disappear. Cheap, as wire-service copy fills up more and more of a shrinking news hole. Cheap, as agency press releases are republished without so much as a fact checked or source queried.

What is left?

Bloggers might take up some of the slack, but there is simply no way that they can replace what is disappearing. Environmental coverage in the new online paper, “Civil Beat,” is for now spotty and lacking in depth – to say nothing of expensive.

We believe that journalism is an honorable profession and that journalists play a vital role in the functioning of democratic government. A corollary to this is the belief that fearless, independent environmental reporting is critical to the formation of sound public policy on environmental issues. And for this time and this place, Environment Hawai`i is the best environmental reporting available.


Many readers are unaware of the impact that our reporting has had on developments in the state over the last two decades. For example, we reported that Del Monte, with the complicity of the state Department of Agriculture, continued to use heptachlor on its pineapple fields long after the public had been led to believe it had been banned. Within days of our report, Del Monte announced it would stop using the chemical and shipped its remaining stocks to a mainland site for disposal.

The state’s plans for a space launch facility along a remote Ka`u coast, in prime hawksbill turtle habitat and just south of the Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park, were foiled when we revealed that the “space czar” for the state was also on the payroll of the same company that had signed an agreement to develop the site. No one within the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism was aware of the conflict, even though it was hiding in plain sight in the many expense receipts submitted by “czar” Thomas Hayward, a retired Navy admiral.

Environment Hawai`i alone provides regular coverage of the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawai`i Authority. Over the last few years, our reporting has disclosed secret meetings, dealings with a con artist, financial outrages, and sheer incompetence on the part of some of its top management.

There is the Board of Land and Natural Resources. When we began covering this important commission, it was routine for board members and selected staff to conduct a kind of dress rehearsal in secret on the eve of scheduled meetings. No sooner was that practice ended (a result, we think, of our prying questions) than the BLNR began to have secret briefings. To be sure, notice was posted on the bulletin board outside the meeting room, and the board chairman insisted that no one would be thrown out if they showed up for the meeting, but no one was allowed to speak at these gatherings except invited staff and, occasionally, those with petitions before the board. Our lawsuit to end these practices resulted in a settlement, with the board agreeing to stop the illegal briefings, keep minutes up to date (some were missing for years), and otherwise follow the requirements of the state’s Sunshine Law.

In fact, our coverage of the Land Board is one of our signal achievements. Teresa Dawson has greater knowledge of the board’s history and actions than do many of the staff and board members themselves. Her regular “Board Talk” column has the depth and thoroughness that make it required reading for anyone who wants or needs to know what is happening with the state’s forests, its shorelines, or public lands.

Then there is the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council (Wespac), which we have been covering since 1994, when hookings of seabirds and endangered sea turtles were shrugged off as the cost of doing business, when prized bottomfish were being pumped out of state waters in unsustainable, unconscionable numbers, and when lobster quotas for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands were set to please the fishers without regard to scientific cautions.

Many of those problems have abated, with our reports at times being instrumental in their resolution. Yet Wespac continues to climb the ladder of outrage to ever higher heights, and you’ll get the best account of this only from our pages. Other reporters may at times sensationalize one or another aspect of the council’s actions, but Environment Hawai`i provides sober, accurate, detailed accounts of this agency. When it comes to actions as outlandish as those of the council and its director, to sensationalize is to gild the lily. The facts are bad enough on their own.

Often, our research leads us down paths that are rarely trod. One of our earliest investigations, into the land dealings of would-be Hawaiian Riviera Resort developer Charles Chidiac, took us deep into the bowels of the Bureau of Conveyance. When we came up for air, the resulting articles laid bare the scheme he had engaged in as he pumped his small initial investment into a snowballing series of ever larger loans, with sources ever more distant. None of the agencies charged with investigating Chidiac’s claims to the Land Use Commission came close to connecting the dots in the way we had done.

Our coverage of the obscure Agribusiness Development Corporation led to a fascinating investigation of favoritism in the award of leases of state land in the Kekaha, Kaua`i, area. Our investigation of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s acquisition of land formerly a part of the McCandless Ranch in South Kona took us through thousands of pages of court records and agency documents. We alone reported the scandalous fact that after payment of $8 million to the former owners, the agency lacked overland access to what was hoped to have been a refuge for the `alala, now extinct in the wild.

Looking Forward

As much as we enjoy looking back over past accomplishments, we are also excited about the future. We are hoping to expand our website and include more features. (Check it out this month to read, for free, some of our favorite past articles.) We also want desperately to be able to help train a new generation of journalists in the art of meticulous research, punctilious attention to detail, and sober, disinterested narrative that we feel is central to our mission.

For this, we ask your ongoing support. First, you can continue your subscription (or if you are reading someone else’s copy, please subscribe on your own). We will be changing subscription rates in July to a three-tiered scale: $65 for individuals, $100 for non-profits and libraries, and $130 for corporations. This, we hope, will be a small enough increase so as to prevent the loss of many readers, but enough so that we can cover more of our very modest costs. (If the new rates are too much for your thin wallet, please call; we’ll work something out, I promise.)

Second, we would ask that you spread the word. If you know someone who might be interested in an article that we’ve published, direct them to our website or call us and let us send them a free sample copy and information on our work.

Third, please don’t be shy about sharing with us any leads you might have on possible sources of grants or other funds to support our work. We are always on the lookout for ways in which we can continue to keep our publication affordable; donations and grants are keys to this effort.

Finally, contrary to all my mother’s teachings on polite behavior, I would ask you to consider making a one-time 20th anniversary gift toEnvironment Hawai`i. It can be any amount, large or small. You can call it in, donate online, or send us a check. As much as we need the support, we also need to know that you have our back.

Times are hard for many of us. Environment Hawai`i has certainly seen the effects of the economic downturn firsthand. Still, we are determined to keep doing the work that we love, the work that we find fulfilling, and the work we feel is vital to the state’s environmental health, for as long as we can. Twenty years is a remarkable record, to be sure, but the need continues. As long as it exists, we wantEnvironment Hawai`i to be around as well.


Patricia Tummons


Volume 20, Number 12 — June 2010


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