We need to put our money where our mouth is in protecting Hawaii’s natural beauty

Beth-Ann Kozlovich

HONOLULU—It’s not often I watch someone in my studio become emotional. Over the 11-plus years since I created Town Square at Hawaii Public Radio, even when we’ve talked about highly charged issues, I can count the times someone has been overcome. The latest was a few days ago when I watched Randy Awo, the Maui branch chief for the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement (DOCARE), choke up. This big man in uniform couldn’t get a word out.

It started when I asked him how he felt when he saw the word “deplorable” repeatedly crop up in press about Hawaii’s parks.

“It can be frustrating at times,” Awo said. “We have a very important mandate to protect our cultural, natural, and historical resources. Having been in this business for 20-plus years, it has been an ongoing struggle to meet that mandate.”

Then I asked him which group—visitors or residents—tends to be more egregious in their disregard for DLNR rules and regulations.

“Visitors are less inclined to violate our laws intentionally because they’re not necessarily here to do anything other than enjoy Hawaii’s environment,” Awo said. “When we have encountered violations that are the result of visitors, it’s usually the result of ignorance. In those cases, we educate them more than give citations.”

So far so good. But then his ability to dispassionately talk began to give way. With thirteen divisions of DLNR, he explained DOCARE’s role is to support the entire department in meeting the DLNR mandate. DOCARE is charged with upholding applicable State, federal, and County laws. With only 98 sworn officers, DOCARE can’t be at all the places it needs to watch, particularly at night when it’s easy for park abusers to do unchecked damage.

“Environmental protection has become very popular,” Awo said. “The awareness has grown; there is an understanding now that these issues are very, very important. The disconnect continues to be beyond the acknowledgment that these are worthy of protection. The disconnect is funding it—it’s meeting your kuleana as part of government to provide a service that protects these priceless resources. We should be making greater effort to fulfill our responsibilities to protect them. You have to approach this with a sense of urgency.”

His implicit point: We’re not.

“It’s meeting your kuleana as part of government to provide a service that protects these priceless resources.”

“When you think about the iconic beauty of Hawaii and about 1.3 million residents, plus 7 million tourists that come to Hawaii annually, we’re talking about a gigantic population of people sharing this land,” said Lance Holter, the Sierra Club Maui group chair. “We think it’s actually an emergency that we can’t have people such as Chief Awo out there in these incredible, pristine, and unique reserves that can’t be patrolled from 6:00 p.m. at night until 7:00 a.m. in the morning. This is when a new kind of user comes in to use and abuse these natural reserves.”

It’s often fashionable to point accusative fingers at State workers, make jokes about their effectiveness, motivation, and ability to get their jobs done. It’s also customary that environmental watchdog groups including The Sierra Club vigilantly scrutinize the State.

Robert Harris, the director of the Sierra Club, said, in DOCARE’s case, these State workers are the good guys told to do more with much, much less.

“Over a 20-year period, DLNR’s budget has fallen by almost half when you factor in inflation,” Harris said. “We know we’re actually spending less money than we used to. Long term, that ends up being more costly because as you don’t do maintenance on, for example, public bathrooms. They fall apart and then when you go in to fix them, it’s more expensive. And if we’re not doing the educational component ...”

Bluntly, Harris admits, “as a policy advocate I can try to get terrific laws passed, but unless you have enforcement, it all falls apart.” Especially over two decades that have seen the resident count escalate and produced some very healthy years for tourism.

Harris and others advocate that some tourism dollars should flow expressly to DOCARE. True, he says, some of the Transit Accommodation Tax (TAT) already gets divided—about $1 million of it—among several small non-profits.

“But when you’re talking $43 million in marketing and allocating a much, much, much smaller amount for all of DLNR responsibilities to keep the product in good shape, we’re missing something ... only .05 percent of the general budget goes to DLNR,” Harris said. “It’s a miniscule amount.”

The Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy also support House Bill 1082, which would create a mechanism for DOCARE to set up a special fund and allow for donations to it, and to seek private grant money. It’s a small thing and by no means a complete fix. Their point is simply that without it, chasing foundation and other private sources would be impossible. Something, in this case, is better than the status quo.

To see House Bill 1082, click here

“Morale is down, people care very much about what they want to do, but they just don’t have the capability to do it,” Harris said.

Tourists come to Hawaii to see our fabled beauty. How well we live up to their expectations can mean the difference between word of mouth that augments our repeat and new visitors and smack talk that may send some visitors elsewhere. And while we want and depend on tourists to come here to revel in our natural resources, having a well-tended Hawaii for all of us to enjoy before bequeathing to successive generations is part of the equation. Unfortunately, by looking at the real dollars allocated to those on the front lines, that seems at odds with all the lipservice.

One caller to the show asked a question I’ve been pondering: Even if a small fee, say $1 per visitor were added to the tab for DOCARE use only, wouldn’t most of us who live here want to have a $5 DOCARE fee added on to our license renewal cost? Yes, California tried something similar, and failed—but hey, we’re not California.

I agree with her and I’d like to believe Hawaii’s smaller, more clued-in population is the most important stakeholder in all of this. So my $5 stands ready. Anyone else?

The interview with Randy Awo, Robert Harris and Lance Holter is on the Town Square archive at www.hawaiipublicradio.org. Reach Beth-Ann Kozlovich at [email protected]