Lei‘ohu Ryder sings of the ancient lands of Palau‘ea being a “pu‘u honua” or place of refuge. For some cultural practitioners, that hasn’t changed. “These are our kupuna,” local resident Daniel Kanahele said, describing the rare dryland forest that has survived for thousands of years on the Palau‘ea lava flows. “We need to respect their right to survive in their native land.”
It sounds simple, but just what form that respect will take is a cat and mouse game that is playing itself out through state and federal agency memos, Planning Department recommendations and environmental review by the Maui Planning Commission. At the heart of the matter are several of the 30 conditions placed on the proposed Wailea 670/Honua‘ula golf course-housing development when it received Council approval in 2008.
“This isn’t about jobs versus trees,” explained biologist Lee Altenberg. “It’s about recognizing what kind of planning needs to be done when you have such a rich heritage site.”
Where is Palau’ea and why was it important? Many know the name from the beach just south of the Kea Lani hotel, sometimes called “white rock.” Archaeological discoveries prove that humans have enjoyed Palau‘ea for over 1,200 years.
Palau‘ea had it all. Great fishing, a protected canoe landing area and gentle waves. Freshwater springs along the shore. Sweet potato patches just a short walk inland. And the nearby forests. For ancient Hawaiians, the forests of these islands literally meant life itself. From them they gathered the resources and drew the spiritual inspiration that were the cornerstones of their culture.
Legends held that great chiefs gathered at Palau‘ea to seek peace. In modern times, when the island of Kaho‘olawe was returned to the state of Hawaii in 1994, hundreds gathered at Palau‘ea beach to begin the healing after a half-century of destruction.
Palau‘ea’s historical importance has long been recognized. Maui County historian Inez Ashdown, Native Hawaiian historians Charlie Keau and Rene Silva and anthropologist Lesley Bruce all spoke up for preservation of the coastal Palau‘ea lands as Wailea Resort was developing in the 1970s. They begged the A&B executives who controlled Wailea Corporation to save this one area as “a living museum for future generations.” Instead, the land was sold to hotel developers. Eventually, through citizen efforts, a 22-acre cultural preserve was set aside. Hundreds of other cultural features in Palau’ea were not so fortunate, and were destroyed when the Wailea golf courses were expanded.
From 2000 on, citizens have been calling out for more of Palau‘ea ahupua‘a to be preserved. In the 1970s land boom, Ulupalakua Ranch sold 700 acres just south of Maui Meadows for a future development called “Makena 700.” Over the next 40 years, the project’s ownership and name changed to “Wailea Ranch” and eventually “Wailea 670.” Today the project is called “Honua‘ula” and the land is the poster child for the debate on how past and future need to coexist.
“My father told me that Hawaiian culture is based on two things: sticks and stones,” the late Edwin Naleilehua Lindsey Jr. was fond of saying.
The respected teacher and Hawaiian cultural practitioner went on to explain that the “sticks” are the native plants from which Hawaiians derived their food, medicine, clothing, tools, implements and shelter. The “stones” were the natural materials—from water-worn pebbles to rough lava chunks—that Hawaiians transformed into tools, equipment, planting areas, trails, building foundations, hearths, ovens and ceremonial sites.
In the years before his passing, Lindsey attended many public hearings to speak up for the “sticks and stones”—rare native dryland forest, ancient lava stone platforms and twisting trails in the lands of Palau‘ea. Lindsey and others understood that, with 95 percent of Maui’s dryland forest already destroyed, the two dozen species of native plants on the Wailea 670 site represented a priceless chance for the survival of one of Maui’s most unique ecosystems.
Early Wailea 670 plans included little in the way of native plant or cultural site preservation. When the County Council discussed the project in 2007, developers proposed protecting six cultural sites and 6 acres of native plant habitat, scattered over 670 acres.
Biologist and researcher Dr. Lee Altenberg told Councilmembers that the proposed 6-acre preserve, which destroyed 95 percent of the existing on-site plant habitat, was “not an accepted approach to conservation.” He predicted that such an approach would “reduce the chance that any of it is going to survive.”
Altenberg researched and authored an independent report on Wailea 670’s native dryland forest. It included pictures of magnificent healthy native wiliwili trees and documented the range of 24 native plant species found on the project site with GPS overlays on maps.
He and others disputed the developer’s botanical report that used words like “scrub vegetation,” “degraded,” “remnant” and “marginal” to describe the presence of native plants. They felt that the project’s planning documents downplayed the site’s biological worth to suggest only minimal preservation was required.
After the controversial project went through years of public hearings and received first-phase approvals, it appeared that the research of Altenberg and the voices of Lindsey and other citizens had been heard.
Along the way, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) had documented the endangered native Blackburn Sphinx moth on the site. They began to consult with the property owners about determining a protected habitat area for the mysterious moth, native bats and bird life, and a number of very rare plants.
Councilmembers unanimously agreed that Wailea 670’s native plants and animals needed a dedicated preservation area. In their final approval in 2008, they attached an enforceable zoning condition to the lands. It specified that the native plant preserve would be the 130 southernmost acres, unless state and federal wildlife experts decided portions were not needed.
Lindsey helped start Maui Cultural Lands, Inc. (MCL) in 2001 to protect and restore native plants and cultural sites. The organization tracked the Wailea 670/Honua‘ula project’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), discovering that key language about the 130-acre preserve was left out.
MCL pointed out this oversight to the County Planning Department, the developer and his consultants and County Council this April.
“The County Council wrote a specific condition (no. 27) that required a preserve to be established,” MCL reminded policymakers, lamenting that “the language of condition 27 has been selectively edited, which has the result of misinterpreting the intent of the condition.”
MCL included language from the EIS preparation notice, with the omitted section underlined: “The Easement shall comprise the portion of the property south of latitude 20°40’15.00”N, excluding any portions that the State Department of Land and Natural Resources, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and the United States Corps of Engineers find do not merit preservation, but shall not be less than 18 acres and shall not exceed 130 acres.”
“This condition makes it clear that state and Federal agencies should be the ones who determine if any of the 130 acres is not needed for native plant and endangered insect habitat,” MCL pointed out. What happened next shocked the MCL volunteers even more.
Wailea 670/Honua‘ula’s Draft EIS was issued this May. It proposed a 22-acre native plant preserve and “a bunch of scattered native plant ‘enhancement areas’ in the golf course rough and gulches,” Daniel Kanahele told MauiTime.
Kanahele was also disappointed that the voluminous document had no current consultation letters from state and federal agencies giving their recommendations, or alternative project maps showing a 130-acre preserve.
“It was basically saying, our plan is to replace healthy native plants with a golf course, then try to replant them someplace else and hope they survive,” Kanahele explained. “It’s as if the rezoning condition didn’t even exist.”
Altenberg attended a June 1 meeting of the County’s Urban Design Review board concerning Wailea 670. He asked the design professionals to recommend that the project comply with condition 27 and include a map with a 130-acre preserve area. The project’s consultant told the board that the overall plant habitat was degraded and that it was better to preserve areas of plant concentration, rather than larger areas.
A month later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued its much-awaited comments on the project’s proposed 22-acre preserve. The wildlife biologists did not agree with the developer’s plan to conserve various “islands” of native plants.
“We believe that your rationale for the design of the native plant preservation area, based on the weighed density of eight ‘uncommon’ native plant species will result in a significant percentage loss of individual plants and further fragmentation of habitat,” read the comments. USFWS recommended that the conservation easement for the native plant preservation include a “contiguous area of roughly 130 acres.”
Former Councilmember Michelle Anderson, contacted by MauiTime in California, was disappointed that the biological review agencies did not see the project’s plans sooner.
“The goal was to get the impartial expert’s opinion before the project layout was designed,” Anderson said. “[Project representative Charlie] Jencks could have saved himself, his investors and all of us who worked so hard to preserve what so rightfully deserves to be preserved a lot of time and trouble if he had fulfilled the change in zoning application requirements and presented a botanical survey that had been approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service years ago.”
The USFWS recommendation specifically asked the Wailea 670/Honua‘ula project to come up with a new site plan design. USFWS wanted to see a 130- acre preserve area “located within the southern portion of the property… incorporated into the preferred alternative [project site plan].”
This isn’t a unique concept. While dryland forests have 60 percent of Hawaii’s native species, they’re so rare that projects are setting aside sizable preserves. The 1,000-acre planned Kaloko Makai community development in Kona features a 150-acre dryland forest preserve. A 75-acre dryland forest preserve is part of the Hawaiian Homelands development nearby. One dryland forest preserve on the Big Island has been managed for 17 years by the Hawaii Forest Industry Association as a popular educational resource for local school children and an ongoing research site.
“Maui needs to have accessible natural areas like Wailea 670, where the land can be cared for and our keiki can learn about a living Hawaiian culture first hand,” said Ekolu Lindsey, who has succeeded his late father as president of Maui Cultural Lands.
It all makes sense, but big questions still remain. During the tight 5-4 rezoning vote, County Councilmembers assured the public that their conditions would take care of community concerns. Two years later, whether they’ll live up to those assurances is another question.
The volunteer Maui Planning Commission has the final say on the project’s plans. The developer is now obligated to show the 130-acre native plant preserve as the preferred alternative in the project’s final EIS, as was requested by both USFWS and the Maui Planning Commission. However, it’s up to the County Planning Department to enforce that requirement.
Jencks told the Planning Commission that the preserve condition is met by 143 acres proposed to grow native plants. Altenberg points out that most of these 143 acres lie outside the mandated conservation easement area, which is whittled down to only 22 acres. “It destroys 75 percent of the habitat where the plants now survive, and proposes artificial life support to grow the plants in habitat where they didn’t survive,” Altenberg said.
“The mandated 130-acre conservation easement allows development on 81 percent of the whole property,” he continued. “All of the buildings and jobs can be kept by designing them at 24 percent higher density—that’s smart growth.”
Altenberg closed his interview with a quote from Scripture, followed by an open-ended question: “‘I offer you the choice of life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life and then you and your descendants will live.’ Why do Honua‘ula Partners choose death for most of this habitat when, by following smart growth principles, they could just as well choose life?”