The decision of Governor Linda Lingle to shut down the state’s Kulani Correctional Facility, a 200-bed minimum security prison, came down like the proverbial ton of bricks on the communities of East Hawai`i. Kulani prison, on the windward slopes of Mauna Loa volcano, had rehabilitation programs that were widely praised and not duplicated elsewhere in the state. Its inmates also had provided a workforce over the last 16 years that helped protect and restore forest lands in East Hawai`i, including some of the state’s best native habitat.
In the wake of the closure – the last prisoners were shipped out in September 2009 – the Natural Area Reserves System Commission approved inclusion of some 6,600 acres that had been managed by the Department of Public Safety into the adjoining 12,000-acre Pu`u Maka`ala Natural Area Reserve. If the proposal is approved by the Board of Land and Natural Resources and the governor signs off on it, the 11 species of endangered plants and seven species of endangered birds found in the area would be afforded the highest level of protection the state can offer.
At a hearing on the proposed NAR expansion held in Volcano Village on July 12, most of the criticism took aim not at the idea of adding the prison land into the NAR system, but at the governor’s decision to close the prison and to turn the prison buildings and some 1,100-plus acres of land formerly managed by the DPS – including some 900 acres of cleared pasture, interior roads, and the site of the Mauna Loa Boys School – over to the state Department of Defense, which plans to operate a Youth Challenge Academy on the site. Emma Yuen, the NAR staffer who moderated the meeting and who had drawn up the supporting materials, explained that the decision to site the state DOD facility on former prison land was not something over which the Department of Land and Natural Resources had any control.
The overwhelming sentiment of the crowd at Cooper Center was in favor of the proposal, although for some, it did not go far enough. Rick Warshauer, who has worked for decades to protect Hawai`i ecosystems, noted that since the pasture area had fallen into disuse, many native plants have begun to regenerate there. In addition, he criticized the plan to carve out the interior roadways (making management difficult) and the boys school area (a small area two miles mauka of the main prison, built in the 1950s but, according to a former prison employee, never used because it was too cold).
Most of the others who testified also strongly supported the proposal, including Native Hawaiian sovereignty activist Gerald Markel, who described the idea as a “wonderful plan… This works for us.”
The proposal would involve no new fences – the DPS had fenced off the entire 7,244-acre site years ago – and would not result in any decrease in the areas open to hunters. Still, a few hunters found fault with the plan. Steve Arraujo suggested that natural resource managers did more harm than good when they cleared fence lines or used herbicide. He suggested also that the state push the federal government to delist several of the species of endangered birds found in the area. Hunter Patrick Pacheco tossed out the chestnut, dear to the hearts of hunters, that pigs keep the forest clear.
Another set of concerns was raised by members of off-road clubs. Wayne Blyth of the Mauna Kea Recreational Users Group agreed that the area was certainly worth preserving, but “we’re concerned about public access. Conservation means responsible use.” Kulani’s closure provided an opportunity to connect Stainback Highway and other roads to more mauka areas. Ed Ung of Rock Island Riders described himself and his cohorts as “staunch conservationists” – but, he warned, “Don’t tell me I can’t go in there.”
When all was said and done, however, the testimony was overwhelmingly supportive of the proposal to protect the area’s high quality natural values and annex it to the Pu`u Maka`ala NAR.
Joseph Camara, a young NARS technician and one of the last speakers of the evening, may have summed up proponents’ sentiments most eloquently. “I think that the history of the people of Hawai`i is written on our land,” he said. “I hope this place in the future, it will show that we took care of it.”