Matt Yamamoto had his work cut out for him. It wasn’t that long ago that he found himself assisting the Fire Department with a recent 911-rescue call. About 30 people had hiked up the Papaea (“Commando”) trail in the Kailua rainforest, then crossed a shallow river to a secluded area to do yoga. Deep in their meditative trance, they didn’t notice the dark clouds looming overhead or the rain pouring into the forest further up the mountain. The river began to swell. Rushing water nearly swept them away as they tried to cross back. Yamamoto assisted the fire department in rescuing them. “Many of the individuals we helped out of the [rescue helicopter] basket were completely naked,” he told me recently. “The river ripped their clothes right off their bodies.”
Yamamoto is a supervisor with the state’s Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement, which usually goes by the cuter acronym DOCARE. Part of Hawai’i’s Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), the DOCARE division is the state’s ultimate protector of our ‘aina and kai. The story of DOCARE is the story of how a small band of sworn officers are trying to make sure there’s a Hawai’i left for our grandchildren.
But in recent years the department has been facing a different danger: lack of funding. It’s forced them to get rid of badly needed enforcement officers. The department’s fiscal year 2006 budget consumes slightly less than 10 percent of DLNR’s $76.8 million annual outlay, which in itself takes up just one percent of the state’s General Fund. In fact, DOCARE is increasingly having difficulty facing the growing list of threats facing our natural resources.
“Environmental needs and political realities don’t always line up,” said Randy Awo who has been with Maui DOCARE for 18 years, the last seven as Branch Chief. “It’s important that we make protecting our natural resources a political priority.”
From evicting trespassers living in lava caves to busting gun-toting, ice-smoking poachers in the mountains, DOCARE officers face daily challenges that are as unique as Maui’s environment. “We hit the ground running, ready for anything,” said Yamamoto. “We are faced with the dangerous and the bizarre.”
For instance, DOCARE officer Nalu Yen told of hiking into the uninviting kiawe thicket next to the Pu’u Olai cinder cone in Makena State park and finding a new definition of the term “wildlife.”
“When patrolling these state lands, we’ll come across these gay sex stations which basically consist of a single bamboo mat laid down over the dirt and thorns with a plastic bag for waste and used condoms thrown about,” said Yen. “It’s definitely a public heath risk,” says Yen.
Last year, a couple pigmy whales beached themselves on a Kihei beach. DOCARE officer Brooks Tamaye responded to the distress call.
“The whale was getting pounded by the shore break so I entered the ocean to hold her upright to make sure her blowhole was clear,” he said. Before it was transported to the nearby Whale Sanctuary, Tamaye stayed with the whale in the relentless surf for hours, holding the 10-foot whale while making sure onlookers kept their distance.
Then there was the time Stanley Okamoto, the senior member of the DOCARE Enforcement team who often talked to children about how to show proper respect for Maui’s land and artifacts, visited Kihei School.
“I remember when students from Kihei School called me to tell me that an adult had taken them hiking in the lava field of Ahihi Kinau Natural Area Reserve,” he said. “When they came across a Hawaiian burial, the adult [guiding] them proceeded to take a skull, a plate, a coconut bowl and opihi shell type jewelry.” Thanks to Okamoto’s community outreach, DOCARE retrieved the artifacts and prosecuted the man.
“Hawai’i’s natural resources are in crisis,” said Awo. “Maui is growing rapidly. More people means more growth, more growth means more pollution, the introduction of more alien species into our landscape and more pressure on our natural resources. More visitors as well as residents are tapping into these resources and not necessarily being sensitive or knowledgeable about why they have to conduct themselves in a certain way.”
As one of the fastest growing counties in the state, you’d think Maui’s DOCARE office would get adequate staff to cover their sweeping responsibilities. That’s not the case.
“We market our resources to the entire world and say, ‘Come participate, come interact, go to our ocean, go to our shoreline, use our mountains, use our streams,” said Awo. “We convey all these messages, yet according to a survey conducted by former DLNR chairman Mike Wilson in the early ‘90s, Hawai’i ranked 49th in the nation in spending when it came to resources protection.”
Maui County is unique in that DOCARE officers are responsible for surveying and patrolling four islands. Maui County DOCARE officers must patrol: all fresh water streams, 122,000 acres of state owned government lands, 565 acres of state parks, 167,533 acres of state owned Forest Reserve lands, 26,050 acres of Natural Area Reserves, 28,000 acres in the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve—including its ocean waters and submerged lands extending from shoreline to two miles seaward—and all state-owned marine waters and submerged lands, an area that starts at the shoreline of each island and extends three miles seaward.
As DLNR’s only law enforcement entity, DOCARE officers must know all applicable federal, state and county laws, statutes, rules and ordinances. They must specialize in all categories dealing with the protection of Hawai’i’s marine life, minerals and endangered and threatened species. They also have to know firearms and how to remove marijuana plants from state lands.
As if their workload wasn’t heavy enough, DOCARE officer workloads increased after 9/11. Since DLNR owns and operates Lahaina Harbor, Maui DOCARE is now required to put together a federally mandated security plan for the anchoring of cruise ships and the tendering of their passengers into Lahaina.
The plan calls for the posting of two DOCARE enforcement officers on the dock the entire time a cruise ship is in port. During the peak season, this means that nearly every day, two officers are pulled from the field to stand on the dock. On occasion, two and sometimes even three cruise ships anchor off of Lahaina Harbor. As the cruise ship business continues to increase in Maui County, more officers will be working harbor security instead of protecting our natural resources.
For the past few years, DOCARE has run on a skeleton crew of just six enforcement officers and two supervisors on Maui, one officer and supervisor on Lanai and one officer on Molokai to patrol or cover all this. Needless to say, the branch is stretched thin.
“Ideally, what I need to accomplish our goals in Maui County is to employ 50 enforcement officers plus five more supervisors and five more clerical support staff,” said Awo.
Recently, higher-ups lifted a departmental hiring freeze, enabling Awo to hire five more enforcement officers on Maui. While grateful, Awo said he needs more.
“My men are working under dire circumstances,” he said. “We have a good staff here, but we are small and our challenges continue to increase. We need more officers. I don’t think this will happen in my lifetime but it would be nice if it could happen in the lifetime of our children.”
Growing up in Waimanalo on Oahu on Hawaiian Homestead lands, Awo said his Hawaiian upbringing taught him that Hawai’i is sacred and its resources should never be taken for granted. He told me he was deeply influenced by his grandfather and his father, Keoki Awo, an enforcement officer on Oahu who started his 25-year career as a Fish and Game warden before Hawai’i became a state.
Awo vividly remembers his first realization that Hawai’i’s resources were depleting. “As a boy in Waimanalo, the end of the summer season was always marked by the running of the moi li’i (small, juvenile moi),” Awo said. “The sea was so thick with the moi li’i as the school migrated by the blue water appeared black. The fish would bang against our legs and surfboards as we played in the water. As I got older, I started noticing less and less moi li’i. By the time I left Waimanalo in 1980, the moi li’i runs had long since ended.”
Some fishermen say the reason for their decline was the introduction of the ta’apei, a game fish from Tahiti. An invasive predator species, the ta’apei began eating the moi li’i. The moi li’i’s disappearance deeply affected Awo and helped solidify his desire to help save Hawai’i’s dwindling resources.
Awo told me that government has not caught up with the traditional Hawaiian feeling that the ‘aina exists to sustain life. “Unlike the Hawaiians that came before us, we live in a world of modern conveniences,” he said. “We routinely gather our food from the shelves of a grocery rather than the lo’i (taro patch) or directly from the ocean. We live in our homes and get water from a tap rather than a stream or freshwater spring. We have separated ourselves from what’s occurring all around us.
“As a result, people in general don’t realize that Hawai’i’s resources are in crisis, and the crisis is growing,” he continued. “Our ancestors understood that their very existence was connected to the health and well being of the land. It was reflected in their laws, where failure to comply often resulted in death. Today nothing has really changed in that the quality of the food that we eat and the water that we drink are directly related to the quality of our natural environment. Hawai’i is a special and sacred place with finite resources. It must be cared for and protected.”
Awo said he feels fortunate that his men—“good soldiers,” as he called them—embrace this philosophy as whole-heartedly as he does. “Our officers have performed well under difficult and challenging circumstances,” he said. “They are responsible for responding to a wide array of issues occurring 24/7. I am proud of what they have been able to achieve given the limited resources that they have had to work with. We are grateful to the numerous community, cultural and environmental groups that have partnered with the DLNR to make Maui and Hawai’i a better place.
“We all recognize that Hawai’i is under a great deal of environmental stress,” he continued. “There is still unfinished business and much more work that needs to be done.” MTW