Plant protection panned: Some residents voice concern about critical habitat designation


A proposal to list nearly 19,000 acres between Palani Road and Waikoloa as critical habitat for three plant species could hardly have come at a worse time, said some residents who attended a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service meeting Wednesday.

Their worries included that such a designation could hinder long-planned development, slow the state’s sustainability efforts, affect land values or stifle what’s done on private land. For others, the proposal came at an opportune time to protect fragile species and perpetuate the landscape before there are too many obstacles and no flexibility to find other alternative areas.

At the West Hawaii Civic Center, the proposal left several meeting attendees in the midst of a classic struggle between development and environmental interests. However, Loyal Mehrhoff, field supervisor for the Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Service Office, said it’s not necessarily about choosing one over the other. Mehrhoff thinks people, plants, animals, the ecosystem, development, the economy and culture can all coexist, but with good planning and vision. He challenged everyone to think about what they want the affected areas to look like in the long term and to consider conservation in their plan.

The meeting was an opportunity to talk with people one-on-one about the proposal and clarify questions. While no oral testimony was heard, attendees were encouraged to submit comments by Sept. 3 to the federal agency. The proposal is available at fws.gov/pacificislands.

Prior to Wednesday’s meeting, Andy Winer, chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Schatz, said his office has been working to arrange a discussion with the Fish and Wildlife Service, the state, the county and private landowners. The meeting, likely to occur this month or in September, would have a mediator, which Fish and Wildlife has agreed to help fund. The goal is to find resolutions that protect at-risk plants and allow important development to occur, as well as discuss any alternatives and possible cooperative partnerships. He said most of the stakeholders have agreed to the meeting or are leaning toward participating.

Bobby Command, the county’s deputy planning director, said the county is also helping organize the meeting with the facilitator. He believes everyone involved is interested in preserving the endangered species, but also working toward goals that benefit everyone. He said the county is concerned about the designation because it may affect how it plans and could impact the vision laid out in the Kona Community Development Plan, particularly the expansion of Kona’s urban core.

Contrary to some fears, Mehrhoff said the designation would not mean private land would be taken away or that anyone who owns property within the critical habitat area couldn’t do anything. However, they might have to get the approval of the Fish and Wildlife Service. He explained certain actions may apply when there’s a federal connection involved in a project, such as if a federal permit is required, federal funding is involved or the land belongs to the federal government.

Mehrhoff said the federal connection is basically “a caution flag” for Fish and Wildlife Service or other federal agencies to evaluate the project and make sure the actions do not destroy or modify the habitat or the species without consultation. If any federal agency has any part in licensing, funding or permitting any activity on the critical habitat, then that agency must ensure the activity does not jeopardize the survival, management or reproduction of the species on that land. This doesn’t mean the project is an instant no, but it may mean for it to move forward mitigation measures would be required, he added.

The proposal wants to list 15 species as endangered. The three plant species the federal agency wants to protect with the designation are: kookoolau, uhiuhi and wahine noho kula. The latter two are previously listed plant species that do not currently have designated critical habitat on Hawaii Island. The areas proposed as critical habitat include 8,766 acres, of which approximately 55 percent is already designated as critical habitat for endangered or threatened species. It’s a mixture of state, federal and private 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.

Bo Kahui, executive director at Laiopua 2020 and president of West Hawaii Parks and Athletic Corporation, said the needs of the community for proposed programs, services, housing, commercial opportunities, a regional park, community centers and medical facilities are paramount. He believes these needs far outweigh that for critical habitat. He would like the planned urban land within the ahupuaa of Kealakehe, Keahuolu, Kohanaiki and Ooma to be excluded from the designation. He thinks there are other areas better suited for critical habitat.

Kona resident Priscilla Studholme supports the proposal because “these plants are part of what Kona is.” She said, “If we come to know them better and value them, then we’ll all be better for it.” With more awareness and value comes better stewardship, she added.