Land Board Adds Kulani Forest to Pu`u Maka`ala Reserve
Adding some 6,000 acres of pristine native forest to the state’s Pu`u Maka`ala Natural Area Reserve was a no-brainer. Transferring about 600 acres that were part of the former Kulani prison site to the state Department of Defense to be used as a Youth ChalleNGe Academy (YCA) proved to be anything but.
The difficulty arose, in part, because the DOD surprised the state Board of Land and Natural Resources with a proposal to allow the Hawai`i Army National Guard to conduct several military operations on the Kulani lands, in addition to establishing a YCA there.
At the board’s September 9 meeting, the DOD’s Neal Mitsuyoshi proposed that the guard, as well as the FBI and SWAT, could use the former boy’s school located at a site miles from the former prison to practice breaching rooms. The long, dirt road connecting the former prison to the school could be used to help the guard identify roadside bombs. An abandoned pasture could serve as a helipad for air operations and the quarry could be used as a shooting range for the guard and law enforcement officers.
Mitsuyoshi told Environment Hawai`i that aside from the shooting range, none of the proposed activities would have included live fire.
In her testimony before the Land Board, community activist Kat Brady supported the NARS expansion, but opposed the DOD transfer, especially the plans for military training.
“Hawai`i is already one of the most militarized places on the planet. … You can’t really slide this thing through on your way out the door,” she said, referring to the fact that the current administration had only about 90 days left.
State Sen. Russell Kokubun, a former Land Board member, asked the board to defer both the NARS expansion and the DOD transfer.
“There needs to be a grander vision for this piece of land,” he said, adding that there had not been enough disclosure on the proposed uses other than the NARS addition. (During an earlier hearing before the Land Board on the proposed DOD transfer, the YCA — a military-style rehabilitation program for troubled youth — was the only proposed use. Military training was not mentioned, except by members of the public who suspected it was part of the DOD’s plans.)
Kokubun continued that he did not support Gov. Linda Lingle’s decision to close the Kulani prison and pointed out that, should the Land Board chose to transfer the site to the DOD, the state Legislature has the power to disapprove that transfer.
“I have no problem with Youth ChalleNGe, but I do not think it’s appropriate for this place [or] the National Guard, as well,” he said. He also argued that some of the 600 acres proposed for transfer could be restored and that the prison should be reopened.
Marjorie Ziegler, executive director of the Conservation Council for Hawai`i, urged the Land Board to at least approve the NARS expansion.
“You’re not going to see a more compelling proposal for expansion” than the Kulani lands, she said.
In the end, because so many members of the public, and the Land Board itself, felt that military training was not appropriate at Kulani, the board decided to restrict the use of the DOD lands to the YCA only. Because they were not integral to the YCA, the road and the boy’s home were included in the NARS expansion (which the board unanimously approved), rather than the DOD transfer.
Rob Pacheco, the Land Board member representing the Big Island, voted against the DOD transfer, and Brady, Kyle Kajihiro of the American Friends Service Committee, and Hawaiian activist Michael Lee requested a contested case hearing.
Before the board’s vote Pacheco said, “To dispense with those public facilities in that way requires more public input.” Instead of transferring the lands from the Department of Public Safety to the DOD — which is necessary because the executive order to the DPS requires the land to be used as a prison — Pacheco argued that the land should return to the DLNR, where it could then be leased out to an appropriate entity.
The YCA is expected to start classes at Kulani in January, and according to Mitsuyoshi, has one year of funding in hand.
Board Extends Ranch Lease, Adds, Protects Palila Habitat
At the same meeting, the Land Board permanently removed 2,177 acres of land at Pu`u Mali from K.K. Ranch’s pasture lease on the slopes of Mauna Kea.
Since 2002, that area had been managed by the U.S. Department of Transportation under a 10-year easement intended to provide habitat for the endangered palila (Loxioides bailleui), which had lost thousands of acres of critical habitat in the department’s realignment of Saddle Road.
With that easement expiring in 2012, the lessee seeking an extension, and palila numbers tanking, the DLNR’s Land Division proposed removing the area from the K.K. Ranch lease. The division also recommended that the Land Board approve in concept setting aside the area to the department’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife for inclusion in the Mauna Kea Forest Reserve and issuing DOFAW an immediate right of entry. Finally, the division recommended extending the K.K. Ranch lease on the remaining 5,105 acres another 20 years, until February 2031.
In an August 25 letter to the Land Division regarding the easement area, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service field supervisor Loyal Merhoff wrote, “Should this parcel revert to cattle grazing, we would need to reanalyze the effects of the action from the 1998 Biological Opinion and take into consideration the loss of these mitigation lands for palila. The resumption of grazing on these lands would reverse any mamane-naio forest regeneration that has occurred during the last 10 years and undo our forward momentum for habitat restoration on Mauna Kea. According to [DOFAW] biologists, the state has spent approximately half a million dollars restoring mamane habitat in Pu`u Mali in order to help sustain the second population of palila.”
At the board’s meeting, the DOT’s Dave Gideon made it clear that his agency would not participate in palila protection past 2012.
“Palila recovery is not the responsibility of the Saddle Road mitigation,” he said.
K.K. Ranch owner Jason Moniz also didn’t seem interested in protecting palila, complaining to the board about a lease term that requires him to maintain portions of fence that border the forest reserve. The fence, built with DOT funds, was constructed to keep cattle, goats, and sheep out and is more elaborate and, therefore, more expensive, than what he would have built to control his cattle.
“The fence is overbuilt for my needs. It’s not fair to me. I don’t want to be stuck with the maintenance of a fence that is more than I need,” he said. One of the terms of the lease requires keeping fences in good repair.
At-large board member David Goode argued for some kind of compromise. Because Moniz actively works the land, Goode said, “He’s going to be the most cost-effective fence repairer.” To Moniz, he said, “Why don’t you maintain the fence and [have the DLNR] adjust your rent accordingly [when rent is re-opened]?”
But an exchange between DOFAW administrator Paul Conry and Moniz suggested that collaboration will be a challenge.
Erosion and runoff have compromised the fence in the past, but Conry informed Moniz that if his cattle were to damage the fence, he would be responsible for fixing it.
Moniz responded, “I don’t know how you’re going to determine that. We’ve already been accused of being in the mitigation area.”
Despite Moniz’s complaints, board chair Laura Thielen reminded him that the board does not have the power to amend the lease terms (other than its duration). The board then unanimously approved the Land Division’s recommendations.
The department underscored the need to aggressively protect palila habitat a few days later in a September 14 joint press release with the FWS and the American Bird Conservancy (ABC).
They announced that a recent survey by the U.S. Geological Survey indicates that the palila population has decreased by nearly 75 percent over the last seven years from about 4,400 birds in the core area in 2003 to about 1,200 birds at present.
“We know what needs to be done to protect this species, and every day that goes by without those actions being implemented brings it one step closer to extinction,” George Wallace, ABC vice president for oceans and islands, said in the release.
DOFAW, with FWS support, has begun to fence the majority of palila critical habitat and has committed to eradicating ungulates once the fence is complete. The FWS gave $900,000 to DOFAW in 2009 for fence construction, and recently committed to providing an additional $1.447 million in 2010, the release states.
“The mamane-naio forest is also threatened by persistent drought conditions and the ensuing threat of wildfires, such as the one that burned 1,387 acres of Palila Critical Habitat on the southern slope of Mauna Kea during late August and early September of this year. DOFAW, FWS, the U.S. Army’s Pohakuloa Training Area, and other stakeholders are working on a comprehensive fire management plan for this area,” the press release states.