I am currently reading That Wild Country: An Epic Journey through the Past, Present, and Future of Americaʻs Public Lands by nature writer Mark Kenyon. The book is maybe a little heavy for the general reader on the details of how “public lands” — the 640 million acres, approximately 28% of the land mass of the United States including Alaska and Hawaii that is owned by the federal government and set aside specifically for public use — came into existence under various designations and use categories.
But as Hawaii Lifeʻs Director of Conservation and Legacy Lands, I felt it was important to understand and contemplate the century-long ebb and flow of public efforts to protect intrinsic environmental values and historically significant sites, and to set aside undeveloped U.S. land to provide open space for humans to hunt, fish, ranch, and experience wild places and solitude. I was especially interested in the role that individual conservationists and non-governmental entities have played in preserving special places for future generations here in Hawaiʻi and beyond.
National “Public Lands” in Hawaii
The Federal government owns and manages about 20% of the land area of Hawaiʻi. The distribution of federal lands in Hawaiʻi is a microcosm of the types of designations created for different purposes and uses. The main exception would be that much of federal land in the Western part of the contiguous 48 states is open for grazing leases, as well as natural resource extraction in some areas.
Here in Hawaiʻi, one-fifth of federal lands are military bases (Department of Defense). Of the remaining acreage, a little more than half is managed by the National Park Service, and the remainder by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The National Park Service actually has nine “units,” including two national parks, three national historical parks, two national historic sites (one not yet open to the public), one national memorial, and one national historic trail. If you want to understand these distinctions and the philosophies leading to their creation, That Wild Country is a good resource.
The Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge was created to protect habitat for nesting seabirds in 1909 when President Teddy Roosevelt first established the national wildlife refuge system. In 2006 the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, along with Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Kure Atoll, was additionally designated as Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. The State of Hawaii, as well as the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, co-manage along with the federal agencies.
Piecing Together Conservation and Legacy Purchases in Hawaiʻi Today
In our efforts to protect land with conservation and agricultural value in Hawaiʻi today, the federal government occasionally plays a supporting role but is not the major actor in the scene nor the eventual landowner. One reason Hawaii Life created a Conservation and Legacy Land initiative is that we realized an individual landowner or community with a goal of protecting certain lands might need help understanding the mechanisms available and piecing together the funding.
For example, when Bishop Museum announced their intention to sell Amy B.H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden, they had a property that had no governmental designation or zoning as a conservation property, but had been given to them with deed restrictions requiring that they sell only to another entity that would keep the property in its current use. The Gardenʻs users and local community formed a new non-profit organization, and the Friends of Amy B.H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden began raising $1.4 million to acquire the property.
Ultimately the purchase funds came from the State Legacy Land Commission, a conservation easement paid for by the Hawaii Countyʻs Public Open Space fund (PONC), private foundations — and the federal government in the form of a USDA Community Forest Program grant. Seller Bishop Museum agreed to continue to provide operating support for the new owners.
In Kaʻu district on Hawaiʻi Island, the Trust for Public Land facilitated the purchase this year of 2,317 acres for preservation. The County Public Open Space and Conservation Fund granted $4 million for a conservation easement, the State Legacy Land Fund brought $2 million, and the selling landowner donated part of the total appraised value. The new landowner will be the non-profit Ala Kahakai Trail Association, which provides community support for the management of the national Ala Kahakai Trail, which runs for 2.3 miles through the 2,317-acre Waikapuna property. This is the second parcel now owned by the trail association.
Similar joint efforts between communities, government, and private resources are protecting stretches of undeveloped coast in Hana, Maui, and were responsible for the landmark effort that protected 79% of open lands then owned by Turtle Bay Resort on Oahuʻs North Shore.
As important as governments have been in conservation and giving all of us the right to enjoy public lands, much of the hard work is done by communities and individuals. How can the average person help? If you are making Hawaiʻi your home — or one of your homes — and would like to learn how you can work with us or any of the local conservation organizations to protect special places and preserve a heritage and way of life, please feel free to contact me.