Column: Legacy Land Conservation Program protects priceless lands

By Nate Smith, Brad Punu and Jonathan Scheuer |  January 15, 2019  | Updated January 14, 2019 7:03pm

He ali‘i ka ‘āina; he kauwā ke kanaka. The land is a chief; man its servant.

The Legacy Land Conservation Program (“LLCP”), the subject of a recent state audit, has empowered local communities across the state to care for cultural sites, grow food, protect drinking water, and save iconic landscapes, beaches and shorelines for future generations. Despite these accomplishments, a legislative spending limit has resulted in a growing unspent cash balance, even as communities and lands are turned away from protecting other beloved places. The lands already preserved are stunning and show the value in strengthening and expanding the LLCP:

>> On Oahu: The scenic Ka ‘Iwi Coast enjoyed by hikers, beachgoers and drivers; the North Shore shoreline near the Turtle Bay Resort where fisherman, families, monk seals, turtles, and more recently, albatross gather and thrive; Kanewai Spring at Kuliouou where school groups learn about Hawaiian culture and the marine ecosystem; MA‘O Organic Farm in Waianae where interns learn about regenerative farming practices and receive tuition waivers to attend college; and the Helemano Wilderness Recreation Area near Whitmore where people will be able to hike, camp and hunt, and from which some of Oahu’s drinking water originates.

>> Hawaii island: The Kuamo‘o Battlefield and Burial Grounds where historic wounds are being healed through malama aina (care of the land); Lapakahi State Historical Park where people can visit historic coastal fishing villages and snorkel a pristine marine protected area; and the Kahuku Coast where endangered Hawaiian hawksbill turtles nest.

>> Maui: The coastal wetlands in southeast Maui at Nu‘u Refuge where native and migratory birds thrive and birdwatchers and local fisherman enjoy; Kahanu in Hana where visitors can enjoy a native coastal forest preserve, an extensive breadfruit collection and an organic community farm.

>> Molokai: Kawaikapu Preserve where volunteers work to restore the watershed by replanting native ‘ohia and hapu‘u fern.

>> Kauai: Iconic Black Pot Beach in Hanalei used by residents and visitors for beach picnics and surfing.

Everyone can enjoy and experience the beauty and history of the many special aina (land) protected by this unique program that recognizes an inherent truth in Hawaii — aina is “that which feeds us,” physically and spiritually.

Mahalo nui loa to the many legislators who had the foresight and bravery to create this amazing program in 2005, and to the volunteer unpaid LLCP Commission members who freely give their expertise in science, environment, conservation, agriculture and Native Hawaiian culture during a year-long application and vetting process where they review applications, visit sites, ask questions, and painstakingly rank projects and make recommendations for funding. The auditor found nothing lacking in these volunteer expert commissioners or the transparent process that they conduct.

We are confident under the leadership of state Land Board Chairwoman Suzanne Case that the administrative missteps identified in the audit have already been corrected or will be addressed, and that the program will thrive and improve. Although the program requires 25 percent of matching funds, most projects average 50 percent or more in matching private, county and federal funds; it is a collaborative and cost-effective program.

We urge the Legislature to address a critical problem identified by the audit: a growing unspent cash balance that has increased because of the Legislature’s “appropriation ceiling” or spending limit set in the annual budget passed. This has resulted in idle funds not earmarked for projects or program’s expenses. Every year, there are many more worthy projects that apply for funding than there is funding available. More special places throughout Hawaii Nei could be conserved and protected with the Legislature’s support of this program, and DLNR’s commitment to correct and improve its administration.