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Ka ‘Ohana O Honu‘apo History

Saving Ka‘u's Crown Jewel
County, state and federal officials, private benefactors
and massive public support come together to preserve Honu‘apo

(Hawaii Island Journal - Jan. 16, 2006*)

By Alan D. McNarie

It's a typical weekday afternoon on the Ka'u Coast. The parking lot at Whittington County Beach Park is empty; the picnic shelters stand deserted. But next door to the park, on the tract of land known as Honu‘apo, a dozen SUVs are parked in the shade of the large trees along the rocky coast. Children are swimming and snorkeling in the tidepools. A grandfather is teaching his grandson how to cast with a rod and reel.

Nearby, picnickers watch a more traditional Hawaiian fishing method in action. A throw-net fisherman stands as motionless as haku'u (black-crowned night heron), stalking his prey near the old wall that once marked the entrance to the "fish pond" - a natural estuary that was expanded and walled off in ancient times to grow mullet for Hawaiian ali'i. (One overly ambitious local Hawaiian ruler was reportedly killed for making his people work too long and hard at fishpond expansion in the area).

The fisherman casts his circular net, then laughingly acknowledges that he's made a mistake. He hauls the net in and carefully disentangles a kokala, a porcupine fish. Much to the delight of the watching children, the kokala has done what a provoked kokala does best - blown itself up into a spiny living balloon the size of a volleyball. The fisherman gingerly places the prickly sphere back in the water, then goes back to his post near the rock wall.

The soul of Whittington Beach Park has always been this coastline, not the picnic shelters. The park has no actual beach, only a stony, exposed shore and a dilapidated pier. But generations of local children have learned to fish and swim in Honu‘apo's tidepools, a lava reef protecting them from the area's notoriously powerful waves and rip currents. The former mullet pond is murky with silt and choked by a mat of salt grass so thick that it's difficult to tell where land ends and water begins, but the pond still serves local fishermen. It's reverted to being what estuaries usually are the world over - a nursery, teeming with tiny fry and fingerlings, many of which may return to the ocean as adults.

The pond also serves larger wildlife. Real haku'u stalk the shallows, sometimes only yards from human fishermen. Green sea turtles have been known to swim into it, probably to graze on algae. A flock of shore birds wheels overhead. In an isolated dead tree surrounded by a broad moat of marsh grass, a single white cattle egret presides from an upper branch over a flock of smaller roosting birds. Pueo (endemic Hawaiian owls) and barn owls hunt here.

Other species occasionally take refuge at Honu‘apo.

"When there's a big storm passing south of the island, what I've seen are huge flocks of albatross come in," said local activist John Replogle. "You see them there, landing and taking off, swirling around. From a distance, they're black. It's quite a sight."

But none of this area is actually part of Whittington Beach Park. Even a large section of the park ground itself, from the restrooms to the parking lot, has been private property for decades. When the California-based company LANDCO bought most of that land nearly three years ago, residents feared that their favorite bit of shoreline would become another subdivision.

That's not going to happen. Thanks to an unprecedented cooperative effort between local residents, government officials, private land trusts and the landowner, the land of Honu‘apo will instead be joined with Whittington into an expanded county park. Last month, the property was purchased by the Trust for Public Lands, a non-profit organization that specializes in purchasing and holding sensitive areas until government agencies can arrange to take them over as public property. If all goes as planned, the state will purchase Honu‘apo as early as next month.

Funding will come, in part, through a million dollar grant generated by Hawai'i's new Legacy Lands Act. The Act sets aside revenue from the state's conveyance tax to provide money to purchase and protect land deemed to have "natural, environmental, recreational, scenic, cultural, agricultural production, or historic value."

The remainder of the purchase money includes $1.5 million from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency's Estuary Protection Fund; $500,000 from the Hawai'i County's Capital Improvement Projects Fund; $230,000 from the County's Parks and Recreation Department; and $170,000 raised by Ka'u residents, including large donations by several local landowners.

According to Josh Stanbro of the Trust from Public Lands, once the state gets title to the 225-acre parcel, it will turn the land over to the county via "executive order" - a legal vehicle that authorizes the county to manage the land as if it were the owner, except it cannot sell the property. Should the county ever choose to divest itself of the parcel, it automatically reverts back to the state. The county runs the rest of Whittington under a similar executive order.

LANDCO has also agreed to donate another small parcel that connects the two sections of the future park. According to Stanbro, a second landowner has agreed to donate yet another small parcel containing the current parking lot and the section of the park between the lot and the restrooms.

Some say this will be the largest beach park in the county - perhaps in the state. But "beach park" is something of a misnomer. "Coastal park" might be a better name - a park of tidepools and marshes and brackish ponds; of picnic grounds, plantation-era ruins and archaeological sites; of coconut groves, koa trees and wildlife. It's a microcosm of some of the best features of the entire Ka'u coast. U.S. Congressman Ed Case calls it "one of the crown jewels of that coast."

The Partnering Strategy

"People in Ka'u have had a reputation of being very independent," says Stanbro, "yet on this, I have never seen people work so closely together."

Stanbro says that TPL's involvement with Honu‘apo got started about a year ago, when he was contacted by Ka'u community members. From that point, he said, the rescue came together with remarkable speed.

"We've been working on Wao Kelo o Puna (a lowland Puna rainforest that TPL is involved in preserving) for four years, and it will probably be going on five...whereas Honu‘apo has happened in less than a year," he says. "In terms of how quickly the community mobilized and was able to secure the federal, state and county funding, it was really a testament to Ka'u."

But in fact, the effort to save Honu‘apo for the public began much earlier than that, according to Councilman Bob Jacobson (Puna-Ka'u-South Kona).

"I started sitting down at the beach about ten years ago, with a few friends, trying to figure out how we could get this land into the public domain," Jacobson said. "For years, we had no answer. We didn't get much done for a long time. I wasn't the only one sitting around trying to figure out how to buy it."

Back then, he notes, "The county could have bought it quite cheaply - a million and a half, rather than this, [but] there didn't seem to be the will; the money wasn't there and the economy wasn't that great."

Galvanizing the Community

The pivotal moment in those early efforts may have come when Jacobson and local community activists teamed up with the late Jerry Rothstein of Public Access Shorelines Hawai'i on a shoreline access survey for Honu‘apo area. Including the fishpond within the shoreline would be a key to ensuring public access to the pond and tidepools and to pushing any future homes back from the shore. This would also prevent a zoning debacle such as those in Kapoho and other island locations, where houses straddle sensitive tide pools and are extremely vulnerable to storm tides and tsunamis.

"When the time came for shoreline certification, we had the whole spectrum of Ka'u show up - from children to a 90-year old," Jacobson recalls. "At that point, people asked, 'What can we do?'"

A core group worked to find a way to save the land from development. They included the Nature Conservancy's John Replogle; and respected Hawaiian kupüna Pele Hanoa and her daughter, Keolalani Hanoa. Several participants told the Journal that the interactions were remarkably free of fractiousness.

"There was not any room for egos or infighting," said Jacobson. "All we could do was get together and do the best job that could be done."

"Among the first people from Ka'u to contact TPL about Honu‘apo and the Ka'u coastal region were Pele Hanoa from the Burial Council and John Replogle, who helped form Ka Ohana o Honu‘apo," Stanbro says. "Both of those folks were so passionate about protecting that land that it really got TPL interested."

And the developers themselves were apparently impressed with the community's passion.

"We just felt it was only right to give the people of Hawai'i and Ka'u a fair chance to purchase the land for protection and so we took a risk, held it off of the market, and worked with TPL to see if they could put something together by the end of the year," stated LANDCO president Mark Lester in a press release.

That year-end deadline was one factor that made TPL's role vital. Without the group stepping in to make the purchase as soon as funding was pledged, government officials might not have been able to put a package together in time. Federal and state funding mechanisms, "move pretty slow," Stanbro notes, and governmental fiscal cycles "often don't mesh with the speed that the landowners want to move."

But TPL couldn't lay down the money for Honu‘apo without assurances they would eventually get it back. Instead of approaching a single agency for the entire amount, the would-be rescuers devised a strategy of going for smaller funding grants, then using those funds as "earnest money" to leverage matching and supplemental grants from other sources.

In this case, however, Stanbro also gives high marks to state administrators for moving the process along at a relatively rapid clip. "The people within DLNR have made it go quicker than it could have gone. They've been working hard to get the funding there by the end of February."

Stanbro credits Honu‘apo's rescue to a huge cast of characters - including the land-owners, bureaucrats such as DLNR Chair Peter Young and Hawai'i County Executive Director Andy Levin, and a host of county, state and federal legislators. But what really made the deal possible, he says, was "the community's dedication and their support throughout the process. People were writing letters of support, testifying, doing research on the property, as well as capturing it on film."

Multimedia Testimony

To bolster written and oral testimony from the community, Ka'u Calendar editor Julia Neal teamed up with cinematographer Danny Miller to produce a short video documentary called Saving Ka'u's Coast. Prominently featured were sweeping shots of endangered places such as Honu‘apo, Kawa and Punalu'u, as well as interviews with Stanbro, Replogle, the Hanoas and Abel Simeone, as well as other local activists, küpuna and just plain residents, talking about the importance of these places to the life of the community. Just as Neal and Miller were about to show the documentary at hearings on Jacobson's funding proposal, nature threw them some bonus footage: a rare Hawaiian monk seal came to Honu‘apo and became an instant movie star.

That community support made it easier to galvanize legislators at all levels of government into action. Some, such as Jacobson, needed no prodding. Others became new converts.

"The three key folks there, in order of importance for getting (state funding) were (State) Senator (Russell) Kokubun, House Speaker Calvin Say and Rep. Bob Herkes," says Stanbro. "The back story here is kind of interesting... Bob Herkes invited some of the House members, including Speaker Say, to do sort of a field trip of Ka'u and South Kona.

"They had visited both Honu‘apo and Miloli'i. I think they were impressed with how the rural community still relied on access to the ocean and the open lands on the coastlines," continued Stanbro.

"I've heard both Rep. Herkes and Speaker Say talk about… how Honu‘apo and Miloli'i represent how important these lands are to maintain traditional connections to the land in rural Hawai'i."

Stanbro says that Sen. Daniel Inouye and his staff were key in securing the $1.5 million NOAA grant.

"One of the first calls I made was to (Inouye's) office, and they said that funding could be available for Honu‘apo if partners were brought in."

As spring progressed into summer last year, the strategy of seeking multiple funding sources and matching funds, backed by grassroots lobbying, began to pay off handsomely. At the time, Jacobson told the Journal that after the state money had been secured, he'd gone to State Sen. Kokubun to thank him for his help; Kokubun told him that without the county's $500,000 in seed money, the state wouldn't have come up with its million for the project. Jacobson, in turn, credits the people of Ka'u.

Jacobson said the county's funding wouldn't have occurred without the Ka'u community's massive turnout. "I told them, 'I can't do anything without you. What I need is a community mandate,'" he said.

"And the community came through. There was more unity on this than on any issue I've ever seen in Ka'u. Their testimony was devastating and right on point.

"We leveraged a half a million dollars in county funds into a three million dollar land purchase," said Jacobson.

As it turned out, that boast was premature. When all the county, state and federal dollars were tallied up, they were still $170,000 short of LANDCO'S $3.4 million asking price.

So the community rolled up its sleeves for one last push. On Saturday, December 10, a ho'olaulea was held at Whittington to raise the rest of the money. The matching-funds principle was used again, this time with the private sector. Several local landowners contributed five-figure sums. One was Andy Shaw, who hopes to subdivide part of a nearby stretch of pastureland into 20-acre farms, while leaving the coast below it as public space. Shaw offered to contribute $50,000 toward the purchase of Honu‘apo if the community would match it.

The community did.

"I wrote a check for $50,000 which they (the TPL) definitely cashed," Shaw told the Journal.

Other big contributors - including Ed Olson, Big Isle Ventures (Chris Manfredi, who owns land across the highway), Roger and Terri Meeker, EWM Investments, Inc. (Ernest Moody), and the HELCO Foundation - joined hundreds of community members who contributed cash, crafts, food and music. By the end of the day, they had met the $170,000 goal.

"A big part of this whole thing is that this truly was a work of love," says Replogle. "There was no 'me' in the thing at all. It was all of us doing the thing for all of us."

Joining the Past and the Future

While purchasing Honu‘apo is an important step, this is not the same thing as preserving the area. In fact, "preservation" itself becomes a somewhat problematic concept; while Honu‘apo has always played a vital role in Ka'u community life, that role has continuously changed. When the first westerners arrived in Ka'u, Honu‘apo was a Hawaiian fishing village. The village was decimated by drought in the 1840s and finally destroyed by an earthquake and tsunami in 1868.

By the 1880s it had been reborn as a bustling commercial port, with a sugar mill and a railroad. An account of the port at that time, quoted in a West Hawaii Today story by Carolyn Lucas, describes a drab, smelly industrial facility with almost no trees, which "suggested prosperity but not beauty." A concrete wall supplanted the ancient Hawaiian fishpond wall, and the estuary became a millpond. But Lucas notes that as roads improved, the port gradually declined; it was wiped out by the tsunami of 1946.

The ruins of Honu‘apo became ranchland, and grazing cattle muddied the waters of the estuary. Another tsunami hit the area in the 1970s, further damaging the area. But the ghostly foundations of sugar-era buildings and the ruins of earlier Hawaiian walls remain - along with a riotous living heritage, a mixture of indigenous Hawaiian plants and animals, "canoe species" brought by Polynesian voyagers, far-ranging seabirds and invasive plants and animals that came over the years via steamships and airplanes.

The abandoned village remained a favorite fishing spot, and locals used it for camping and picnics. But it also attracted vandals, drug dealers and people who were simply down and out and needed a place to sleep. With no roads, four-wheel-drive trails have lacerated the vegetation. Trees have been cut down - including, recently, several coconut palms, as well as an ancient koa tree that had probably survived the botanical holocaust of the commercial port.

Honu‘apo is about to become something it's never been before: an officially designated public park. But in the process of figuring out what kind of park it should be, the new stewards will have to deal with what it has been. Which Honu‘apo should be preserved? The ancient Hawaiian village? The Sugar Era foundations? Should the Hawaiian fishpond be restored, or should the area be allowed to return to a natural wetland? Which plant species are weeds to be rooted out, and which are legacies to be cultivated?

One of the next obvious steps is to conduct archaeological, botanical and wildlife surveys to help in that decision-making process. Replogle and Stanbro point out other immediate needs: a volunteer watch system must be set up to prevent further vandalism, 4WD trails need to be established and enforced to minimize the destruction of plant life, and weeds need to be trimmed back so people can finally see exactly what they have just purchased. And resources need to be found to do all this.

The community is again stepping into the breach. A new nonprofit organization called Ka 'Ohana o Honu‘apo has been established to partner with the county in managing the park. It has already held some informal volunteer work days to clear weeds and pick up trash. More work days will be scheduled after the state has assumed control of the property.

"Everybody's going to have to start working to take care of where they live," said Replogle. "We can't keep expecting others to do it for us."

Those interested in contributing or participating should contact Ka 'Ohana O Honu‘apo at 929-9891.


*This article is posted with the permission Laurie V. Carlson and Alan D. McNarie.


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