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Hawaii News

State agencies begin transfer of Act 90 lands

After two decades of mostly inaction, the state has begun transferring thousands of acres of pasture land to its Department of Agriculture in a significant win for farming in Hawaii.

The state Board of Land and Natural Resources on Friday unanimously approved the transfer of some 30,000 acres of pasture land on Hawaii island currently managed by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to the DOA.

The transfer of those lands was first unanimously approved by the state Board of Agriculture on Tuesday, so the Land Board’s approvals Friday signify a hurdle that the state has been unable to overcome for decades: getting both the BLNR and BOA to agree on the transfers of pasture lands to the Agriculture Department.

“We’re in it together,” BLNR Chair Dawn Chang said to ranchers and agriculture advocates after Friday’s vote, later adding that the transfers signal “the beginning of, I think, a collaborative relationship to support what you guys are doing in the ranching industry and how you can work with us to ensure that our interests as DLNR are met. I’m very optimistic.”

The pasture lands are part of more than 100,000 acres of DLNR land made eligible for transfer to the DOA under Act 90, a state law passed in 2003 to keep active pasture land in agricultural production.

Since then, most of the land had been stuck in the DLNR, largely because the parcels the DOA wanted had conservation or recreational purposes or potential that the land department didn’t want to give up, and Act 90 requires that both boards agreed to the transfers.

Before Friday about 19,000 acres of land was moved between the departments in the 20 years since the law passed.

BOA Chair Sharon Hurd, who attended Friday’s meeting, noted after the votes the importance of transferring eligible land, and reassured the Land Board that conservation would still be an important goal for moved parcels.

“This has been a difficult, difficult path. I’ve only been in place for eight months. … The only thing we heard was the demand … to pass (lands under) Act 90,” Hurd said. “This transfer, please don’t worry about conservation being ignored. It’s not a zero-sum game. It’s very much a complementary game.”

Ranchers caught in the middle of the departmental impasse have been frustrated about land management by the DLNR, which has to consider conservation, recreation, agriculture and other uses for land, while the DOA’s focus is on farming.

The DLNR has withdrawn pasture land for conservation and reforestation purposes, and its leasing constraints often force ranchers to operate farms on land occupied by month-to-month revocable permits. Leases under the DLNR can also force ranchers to publicly bid on land they’ve already worked on and improved for decades.

The land transferred Friday includes some 24,800 acres of Kapapala Ranch in Pahala and 5,100 acres of K.K. Ranch in the Honokaa area.

K.K. Ranch’s original general lease covered about 7,300 acres. In 2010 the Land Board approved the withdrawal of 2,100 acres for the Palila Critical Habitat Mitigation area.

Kapapala operates on a general lease covering about 22,700 acres in size and two revocable permits that together make up about 9,000 acres. As part of the transfer, Kapapala agreed to leave 7,000 acres of its general leased lands with “high natural resource value” to the DLNR, the department said in a recommendation approving the land transfer.

That land left to the land department could be added to the Kapapala Forest Reserve.

Lani and Bill Petrie, who operate Kapapala Ranch, and Jeri and Jason Moniz of K.K. Ranch were described at the Land Board meeting as exceptional land stewards and community-focused ranchers who would ensure the proper management of the land they farm.

In recent state legislative sessions, lawmakers have introduced various measures to speed up the transfer of Act 90 lands, and the effort to do so had become increasingly aggressive. Senate Bill 77 this year would have essentially forced the transfer of all eligible lands.

In response to the movement of SB 77, Hurd and Chang said they would work together to get the transfers underway, and in April announced a plan to finish the transfers by the end of the year.

The transfer of the land raised some concerns about lost access to hiking trails and hunting on land that would move to the Agriculture Department, and in turn that could infringe upon Native Hawaiian traditional and customary practices.

Zuri Kaapana Aki, representing the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, was in attendance for Friday’s meeting to express some of those concerns to the Land Board. He did not explicitly oppose the land transfers and, despite his reservations, appeared eager to support local agriculture in a state that’s heavily dependent on imports to feed itself.

That was the case for many at the meeting.

“I’ve testified before this body before. I’ve testified many times at the state Legislature. I don’t recall anytime being as nervous as I am right now. That’s because of the importance of these issues,” Brian Miyamoto, executive director of the Hawaii Farm Bureau, said at the beginning of Friday’s discussions on the Act 90 lands.

“Agriculture as a whole here in Hawaii is challenging,” he later said. “Management issues, water issues, labor issues — there are multiple issues. … The sector itself has been in decline. We see Act 90 as an opportunity to reverse that, to build the capacity back up.”

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