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Editorial | Island Voices

‘Critical habitat’ designation threatens cattlemen

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) recently designated more that 14,000 acres of private land on Oahu as "critical habitat" for endangered and threatened species ("More native species at risk," Star-Advertiser, Sept. 19) and is now proposing to designate more than 271,000 acres of public and private land in Maui County.

While we commend the Star-Advertiser for its editorial regarding endangered species, there are significant issues raised by the critical habitat designation that need to be discussed ("Learn about native species," Star-Advertiser, Our View, Sept. 22).

Hawaii cattle producers graze and provide stewardship on approximately 1 million acres of lands across our state, about 25 percent of Hawaii’s land mass.

Cattlemen are good stewards of the land because our livelihoods depend on it. It’s also the right thing to do. Many of our ranches are family-owned and multi-generational; our legacies are the well-managed lands we leave behind.

A primary value of the ranching industry to the people of Hawaii is the ecosystem services that this managed land provides to our community, including aesthetic values and scenic vistas, water catchment and infiltration, carbon sequestration, habitat enhancement and preservation, fire suppression through fuel load management, soil conservation, preservation of cultural values and potential for additional access and recreational opportunities.

We are acutely aware of the importance of well-managed wildlife habitat and watershed areas. We are concerned, however that if private lands are included in such a massive designation of critical habitat, this may have a negative effect on our economy, our property values and the use of our land. Ultimately, designating critical habitat on private property may negatively affect the species we are trying to protect.

Currently, the state is advocating food sustainability and encouraging agricultural enterprises. The designation of critical habitat could close pastures and force ranchers to decrease their herd size. This will have a direct and negative impact on existing agricultural operations and is a complete reversal of current state policy.

Excluding private property from a critical habitat designation can be more beneficial than including these areas. For the difficult task of conservation work in Hawaii, cattlemen can be the greatest of assets. Ranchers are an integral part of many of the watershed partnerships around the state, working together to implement projects to help habitat restoration and listed species while at the same time accommodating economically beneficial land uses. Designating land as critical habitat will make it more difficult for these valuable partnerships to function because of the delays associated with Endangered Species Act consultations and inflexible requirements on modifying critical habitats.

In USFWS’s June 11 news release soliciting comments, the agency stated that "the designation of Critical Habitat does not adversely affect land ownership …" This is a misleading statement. When the federal government draws a red circle around private property and declares it critical habitat, the requirement that there be no adverse modification to the area will have a direct and negative effect on the value and the use of that property. A rancher’s property is the security used to borrow money, and when devalued for any reason, could create a devastating economic hardship and dissolve many economically marginal ranches.

Very few affected ranchers or other private landowners have been contacted by USFWS or even knew this process is happening. Many do not understand what critical habitat is or what the ramifications are, causing anxiety in the ranching and landowner community. Public hearings and a broader outreach by USFWS to affected landowners, which they recently agreed to, would go a long way in alleviating our concerns.

We urge USFWS to continue to work with ranchers and other private landowners through cooperative measures and voluntary partnerships, not with threats, punishments and designations.

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