On Maui, people who want to raise awareness of environmental issues like clean air, sewage dumping or invasive species are often locked into a kind of traveling road show. They’re just citizens with day jobs. Usually their only hope of connecting with people face to face requires them to haul stacks of flyers and tables with folding legs to Earth Day celebrations and the Maui County Fair.
Rob Parsons, Maui’s Environmental Coordinator, wants to change that. He wants to turn a vacant beach house that belongs to the county into the Maui County Environmental Resource Center (MCERC).
“This could be a permanent place for Maui’s environmental organizations to house their information and host public workshops,” he said. “This could become a central location where visitors, residents and students could go to learn about environmental issues and organizations and learn how to get involved.”
Maui County acquired the 2,250 square-foot house, located on one-and-a-half acres along Baldwin Beach in Paia, in August 2005 as part of a legal settlement agreement with the previous owners over improperly issued permits. The terms of the $4.58 million settlement require that the county utilize the property only for public purposes.
Parsons said the administration first wants to get the property’s zoning changed from “Urban Reserve” to “Park.”Community centers like the one he’s described are legal in areas zoned for Park.
He envisions a community resource center similar to visitor centers found in the mainland and the National Parks. He believes this facility could become the focal point for the proposed North Shore Regional Park.
Local environmentalists agree.
“The MCERC would be a dream come true to homeless non-profits such as Hawai’i Wildlife Fund,” said Maui Research Coordinator Cheryl King. King spearheads HWF’s Hawksbill Recovery Project. “There are so many grass-roots organizations on Maui that barely get by with the help of volunteers and the occasional donation, and that don’t have central offices or meeting places.”
At the Maui Nui Botanical Gardens Earth Day celebration in Kahului, Alex Michailidis said the putting the MCERC in Paia would be “ideal.
“Visitors want to learn about the place they visit, they want to contribute,” he said. “This facility will show them the importance of Maui’s environment and how these groups are working to protect it.”
Joe Bertram of Greenways Maui sees it as an ideal way to reach children. “An environmental resource center would be a new venue to get our messages out to a greater audience,” he said. “It could help our keiki learn about the importance of environmentally friendly, pedestrian-orientated communities.”
Department of Land and Natural Resources Chairmen Peter Young supports developing environmental education centers and expanding environmental education programs across the state. He included a request for $1-million in the DLNR budget to enhance environmental education programs.
“Environmental education, and the importance of understanding our individual and collective responsibility to protect the world around us, needs to start at the earliest possible moment, at the earliest grade levels, as well as through continued education as we grow and age,” Young said. “Although the legislative session is not over, it does not appear that we will get the $1 million this year.”
Parsons is asking the county for $150,000 to support the MCERC. Two thirds of that would cover repair, maintenance and upgrades to the vacant building and property, while $50,000 would provide a conceptual design and study for using the building as an environmental resource center. So far, council members aren’t going along with Parsons.
“If Hawai’i’s environment is our economy, why does the environment always get the leftovers in the budget?” Parsons asked. “The environment always is an afterthought when it should be the focus in planning and budgeting—especially during this booming real estate and construction economy. We cannot lose sight of the environment. I don’t think asking for $150,000 out of a $467 million budget to be used for environmental education and protection is unreasonable.” MTW