Whatever Happened To… The Hawai'i Tropical Botanical Garden

posted in: February 2002 | 0

With this issue, Environment Hawai`i launches an occasional column to address subjects we have dealt with in the past. If you have suggestions for topics, give us a call.

In 1997, a long-simmering dispute over public shoreline access at Onomea Bay on the Big Island seemed to be resolved. The state Board of Land and Natural Resources had reaffirmed the public’s right to use a state-owned trail that bisected private property owned by Dan Lutkenhouse and the Hawai`i Tropical Botanical Garden that he founded in the mid-1980s. The garden had received approval of its request for an easement to install utility lines on land lying within the state Conservation District. And the Land Board had set a deadline for resolution of a dispute over land ownership.

Four and a half years later, little has changed. Dawn Chang, the deputy attorney general who shepherded through the agreement between the state and the garden, is no longer working for the state. Ed Henry, the planner at the Department of Land and Natural Resources who managed the garden’s various applications, has died. And as recently as January 10, a worker for the state trail division, Na Ala Hele, discovered large tree stumps in the public right of way, apparently placed there by garden employees with the intent of discouraging public access.

The tremendous flooding of November 1999 eroded parts of the trail leading from the highway to the shore. That, plus the positioning of vertical posts at the top of the trail, effectively ended the garden’s use of the partly paved trail for vehicular access.

On November 21, 1997, the 90-day period in which the issue of state land remnants was to be resolved ran out. No one seems to have done anything to close out this issue in the years since. In fact, the acting head of the Land Division for the Big Island, Wesley Matsunaga, has been with the agency for three years and has no knowledge of the dispute over the state’s remnant lands.

“The only thing we’re familiar with is the access road, which Na Ala Hele deals with,” Matsunaga said. As far as the matter of an easement being issued or other land disputes, he said, “I’ll have to research that in the pending files.”

In August 2001, Brian MacKenzie, who owns land adjoining the garden, brought a lawsuit against the garden and the state. He alleges that the state has failed to enforce conditions of the Conservation District Use Permit it issued to the garden. The garden, he alleges further, continues to interfere with public pedestrian use of the trails and has removed the state signs indicating the public trails. His most serious allegation may be that employees of a contractor hired by the garden assaulted him last May, causing him bodily injury.

The Po`ouli

In 1998, the state published an environmental assessment on managing the Po`ouli, a forest bird whose total population numbered just three birds, scattered across the remote Hanawi Natural Area Reserve of East Maui. Through an arduous process of sexing by means of cells obtained from quills, scientists believed two were female and the one remaining a male. With no overlap of their ranges, chances of any romantic encounter – and, hence, the chances of reproduction — were virtually nil.

In early January, the state and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to move forward with a plan to trap one of the females and relocate her to an area within the home range of the male. The project was expected to take at least six weeks.

Both male and female birds were to be fitted with radio transmitters in an effort to help researchers locate them and track their movements.

Of course, even supposing that the male and female meet up, there’s no guarantee of love at first sight. And scientists have a contingency plan for that, too. If the chemistry doesn’t work between this pair, the second female may be captured and brought within the male’s range.

Scott Fretz, a forest-bird biologist with the state’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife, told Environment Hawai`i that the first crew went into the forest in early January. “They stayed about 10 days and did not catch either bird,” he said, “so they’re resting now.” A second crew was scheduled to go into the forest on January 21 for another 10-day stay. “Then there will be another break, then another crew.”

After that, if success is still elusive, “we’ll regroup and decide what happens next.”

The first work crew was split into two parties, Fretz said. One went into the territory of the selected female, the other went into the male’s territory. “They did catch sight of the birds,” he continued. “But they couldn’t get them to go into the nets.”

Even though the plan is to bring the female into the range of the male, the male still needs to be caught and outfitted with the radio transmitter so scientists will have some idea where to release the female once she is captured.

— Patricia Tummons

Volume 12, Number 8 February 2002