by David Corrigan, meeting video courtesy Queen Liliuokalani Trust
KEALAKEHE, Hawaii – A large crowd packed the West Hawaii Civic Center on Wednesday. The majority were there to voice their disapproval of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to create critical habitat for three species in North Kona.
The federal agency was conducting a public hearing on its draft economic analysis for the new designations. In October of last year, the Service released its proposal to list 15 species as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, and to designate 18,766 acres of critical habitat for one of the proposed plant species – ko‘oko‘olau – and for two previously listed plant species – uhiuhi and wahine noho kula – that do not have designated critical habitat on the Big Island.
The areas proposed as critical habitat include seven units totaling approximately 18,766 acres. All three species co-occur in the same lowland dry ecosystem and share many of the same physical or biological features (e.g., elevation, annual rainfall, substrate and associated native plant genera) as well as the same threats from development, fire and nonnative ungulates and plants. The proposed critical habitat is both occupied and unoccupied by three species.
A look at the map shows where these units are located.
The biggest, by far is Unit 10 and Unit 31 in the Puuanahulu area – a large, western portion of which is under consideration of exclusion: in this case, 2,834 acres associated with Kamehameha Schools.
Unit 32, which surrounds Waikoloa Village.
Unit 33, just north of Kaiminani Drive, which excludes 502 acres associated with Palamanui Global Holdings, LLC… but includes parts of the West Hawaii Community College site. This unit also includes Hawaiian Homelands, for which there could be major impacts. According to the Department of Hawaiian Homelands, setting aside 50 to 150 acres within the 91 acre area overlapping Unit 33 would jeopardize their plans for developing 400 residential homestead units and detract from their overall mission.
Unit 34 straddles Hina Lani Street and includes the third phase of the Ane Keohokalole Highway project. It contains another exclusion for 630 acres associated with the Kaloko Makai Development and 47 acres associated with Lanihau Properties.
Across the Queen Kaahumahu Highway is unit 36, on top of the lava fields mauka of Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park.
But probably the most controversial unit is Unit 35, right smack over the Kealakehe area, which is leading Kona as the center of urban development.
This unit envelopes the planned State Judiciary complex and the planned regional park. Also, Forest City’s Kamakana Villages project and more Hawaiian Homelands: the Villages of La’i’opua, for which there are 87 acres proposed for exclusion.
It is in this proposed critical habitat unit, which also happens to be where the West Hawaii Civic Center is located, home to Wedensday’s hearing. It also includes a major chunk of Queen Liliuokalani Trust land, the entity that organized the filming of this hearing. They made thier opinion known loud and clear.
The Trust lands that fall within the proposed critical habitat lands are the most valuable of the Trust’s portfolio of undeveloped landholdings and are expected to be the primary future source of revenue for expansion of the Trust’s programs.
According to the draft analysis, The Trust has indicated a willingness to work cooperatively with the federal Service on a conservation plan and discussions between the Trust and the Service are currently underway.
The service says the designation of critical habitat does not affect land ownership or establish a refuge or preserve. Listed species and their habitat are protected by the Act whether or not they are in an area designated as critical habitat. In general, a critical habitat designation has no impact on private landowners taking actions on their land that do not require federal funding or permits.
But many of these testifiers were not so trusting on Wednesday.