Comment period reopened on critical habitat proposal


At the behest of Hawaii residents and politicians, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reopened the public comment period on a proposal to list nearly 19,000 acres between Palani Road and Waikoloa on the Big Island as critical habitat for three plant species. It is also seeking to list 15 species as endangered.

The federal agency will accept comments on this proposal and the accompanying economic impact analysis until Sept. 3. The comments deemed most helpful include: reasons for or against the designation; land use designation or current or planned activities in the affected areas; any foreseeable economic, national security or other impacts; ways to improve or modify the proposal; and specific information on habitat and special management considerations or needed protections.

FWS officials anticipate making a final decision by the end of September.

To help clarify questions and educate people one-on-one about the proposal, FWS will hold a second information meeting from 3 to 5 p.m. Aug. 7 at the West Hawaii Civic Center in Kailua-Kona. No oral testimony will be heard at this meeting because it’s not a public hearing.

The proposal has come under fire as many are worried the critical habitat designation will have adverse effects on development and transportation projects, including the future Kona Judiciary Complex, the expansion of a highway and a planned regional park. These concerns were voiced in May by representatives from Queen Liliuokalani Trust, Lanihau Properties and the West Hawaii Bar Association, as well as county officials and affected landowners.

Several residents have questioned the findings of the economic impact analysis, such as the estimated financial impact of $35,000 over the next 10 years for areas proposed for critical habitat. The draft analysis was prepared for FWS by Cambridge, Mass.-based Industrial Economics Incorporated. Land redistricting by the state and county is also a concern.

According to the analysis, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, along with the state Office of Planning and county Planning Department, takes critical habitat into consideration during the decision-making process. However, the designation does not necessarily lead to land redistricting by the state. As for situations involving the county, “significant uncertainty exists regarding whether or not critical habitat will cause the county to request additional assessments or reporting, or require additional conservation efforts when a landowner applies for a change in zoning,” the report stated.

The areas proposed as critical habitat include seven units totaling 18,766 acres, of which approximately 55 percent is already designated as critical habitat for endangered or threatened species, said Ken Foote, FWS information and education specialist. It’s a mixture of state, federal, county and private lands. Nearly two-thirds of the land is owned by the state of Hawaii. The proposal includes the designation of more than 2,800 acres associated with Kamehameha Schools, plus 87 acres associated with the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

The proposed area excludes 4,099 acres of privately owned lands from critical habitat that have a voluntary conservation agreement, are partners in watershed partnerships or dry forest working groups, or have a conservation or watershed preserve designation or similar conservation protection.

The proposal is not new. It was originally unveiled last fall and had a 60-day comment period, ending December 17, 2012. Then in April, FWS reopened the comment period for 30 days, as well as held a public hearing and informational meeting in May. FWS again opened the comment period this time because of the multiple requests by stakeholders and elected officials, Foote said. He reiterated the federal agency’s want for greater public input, participation and understanding, as well as its willingness to try to accommodate and address public concerns.

U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, said in a statement to the Associated Press that there are still unanswered questions about the plans.

“We are committed to finding a compromise that provides for our communities and protects our native species,” she told AP Tuesday.

Foote said there are misconceptions surrounding the proposed designation of critical habitat, which is often one of the most controversial and confusing aspects of the Endangered Species Act. He explained a critical habitat designation protects areas necessary for species conservation. Critical habitat may include an area that’s not currently occupied by the species, but needed for its recovery.

In this case, the federal agency is trying help kookoolau — one of the 15 species proposed for ESA listing — and for uhiuhi and wahine noho kula — previously listed plant species that do not have designated critical habitat on the Big Island. Foote said failure to protect the habitat of Hawaii’s endemic species means those species will be lost forever, and there are several plant species no longer found or only have a few individuals left.

The three plant species in the proposal are threatened by habitat destruction and modification caused by invasive, nonnative plants, feral pigs, sheep and goats. Other threats include agricultural and urban development.

An area designated as critical habitat is not a refuge or sanctuary. Listed species and their habitat are protected by the ESA whether or not they’re in a area designated as critical habitat. The designation generally has no effect on situations that do not involve a federal agency, Foote said.

Comments may be submitted via the Federal eRulemaking Portal at regulations.gov or mailed to Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS-R1-ES-2013-0028, Division of Policy and Directives Management; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; 4401 N. Fairfax Dr., MS 2042-PDM, Arlington, VA 22203. Copies of the proposal and the economic analysis are available at fws.gov/pacificislands.

For more information, call field supervisor Loyal Mehrhoff of the Pacific Island FWS office in Honolulu at 792-9400.