We live in times when matters of the environment increasingly seem of preeminent importance. Especially given Hawaii’s island topography and placement in the middle of the Pacific, news concerning ocean acidification, threats to endangered species and climate change in general does indeed travel fast.
For the last 25 years, the tiny publication Environment Hawai‘i has made a big impact on what people throughout the state know and understand about the natural world. Each month, the little subscriber-based newsletter (they don’t run advertisements) has reported on often difficult and technical environment and land use stories. And it’s done so consistently with great intelligence and heart.
“Our reports are based on serious legwork and beat coverage–never ever on press releases,” states the Environment Hawai‘i website. “At a time when news across the state has been homogenized and pasteurized and consolidated into easily digested pap, our reports continue to have substance, addressing difficult issues but always with a view to making them understood to motivated readers concerned about the fate of Hawai`i’s unique assemblage of flora and fauna, its precious and limited natural resources, and its still-abundant but often threatened beauty.”
Though their official anniversary took place in June, the publication will be throwing a little celebration in Hilo on Aug. 14. Last week, I spoke by phone with Patricia Tummons, Environment Hawaii’s founder and editor about the newsletter’s purpose, evolution and impact.
MAUITIME: Congratulations on making it 25 years. If you will, let’s go back to 1990 and describe how you got started.
PATRICIA TUMMONS: There were three of us–three ladies. There was myself, and I had been working with the League of Women Voters and doing freelance jobs. Then there was Marjorie Ziegler and Andria Benner. We were grousing about how daily newspapers were remiss in their coverage of the environment. I came from a newspaper background–14 years at the St. Louis Post Dispatch. So we decided to put together our own newsletter. It was subscriber-supported–no commercials. And we’d write about the environment, with a little more meat than you’d find in the dailies.
MT: Were you always based in Hilo?
PT: No. The first three years were were based on Oahu. But it got too pricey.
MT: Who works on the publication now, besides yourself?
PT: In 1997, I hired Theresa Dawson as another reporter. She’s based in Honolulu. But I pretty much did all the writing from the get-go. Andria was too busy to do much writing and Marjorie moved back to the Mainland.
MT: What have been some of your standout stories?
PT: Oh, in 1993, we looked at a spaceport that was proposed on the Big Island. The state named Tom Hayward, a former admiral, “space czar.” But then I found out that he had contractor status.
I flew to Honolulu and looked in DBEDT [Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism] files to see his contract. He had an unusual way of submitting requests for reimbursements: he would submit a hotel bill, and alongside each charge he would have a two-letter code–HI for Hawaii, UT for United Technologies and so forth. It was not a hard code to decipher. I also found out that sometimes he would be registered in a hotel under the name of United Technologies or Lockheed or General Dynamics. Now if he was working for Lockheed, and they’re a spaceport contractor, isn’t that a conflict?
I called up his supervisor and asked him if he knew of any conflicts that Admiral Hayward would have. He poopooed the idea, outraged that I would even make such a suggestion. But I asked him if he would tell Hayward that I wanted to talk to him. Later, Hayward called me, but at an odd hour. He said how wonderful the spaceport would be. Then I asked him if he was also a contractor with Lockheed. He got quiet, then said, “Yes, but that’s a different division.”
A couple months after breaking that story Hayward was out and the spaceport was never built.
MT: That’s remarkable. What else?
PT: In 1994, we started attending the Western Pacific Regional Management Council meetings (known as WestPac). They advise the federal government on the management of fisheries in federal waters.
The first time we were there, they were discussing the catching of turtles by long lines. They weren’t setting out to catch turtles, but they were interacting with them year after year. There were take limits, but each year the fleet would exceed that number. But instead of imposing sanctions or requirements for gear that would be more turtle-friendly, they just raised the limit each year.
We started writing about this in 1994. Year after year, we watched in horror as they just ratcheted up the limit on what fishermen could take. Finally in 1999, based largely on our reports, Earthjustice sued. That led to a moratorium on the swordfish fisheries for a couple years.
As a reporter, you’re limited to just putting it out there. We tried and tried and tried and finally someone picked it up and ran with it.
MT: I wish I could say the turtle situation has gotten better since then. Or the fishing situation…
PT: More recently, maybe 2011, we reported on the depletion of bigeye tuna stocks across the Central Pacific. They are now in a state of being over-fished, which is not good. We’ve gone to international conferences on this. They meet once a year, and either Theresa or I have gone for the last four or five years.
Here in Hawaii, the fleet has been assigned a quota, but each year, they reach that goal earlier and earlier. The U.S. as a whole, including all possessions, has one quota: 3,500 metric tons. They’re probably at 90 percent of their quota now.
Starting in 2011, Congress gave them an out: after meeting their quota, they can keep fishing, but it will be attributed to U.S. territories. Never mind that they’re not fishing there, or that the tuna was caught there, or even landed there.
Earthjustice filed a lawsuit, and it’s coming up in October. It’ll be really interesting to see how this plays out.
MT: Definitely. Any other stories you’re particularly proud of?
PT: Have you heard of Charles Chidiac?
MT: No, I haven’t.
PT: He was a Lebanese Christian who studied at the University of Hawaii. He became an entrepreneur, and proposed a “Hawaiian Riviera Resort” on the Big Island. It was near Ocean View, an unimproved subdivision. South from that is Pohue Bay, which is a pretty little cove. It’s also an active volcanic fault zone.
He proposed a mammoth resort with an airfield and yacht harbor. They were grandiose plans, and he started to get approvals from the state Land Use Commission. He got the last one in 1991. But a group of fishermen sued–they have pretty unique ways of fishing bigeye scad and smaller fish. They proceeded to try to get the wheels off this project.
I spent countless hours at the Bureau of Conveyances–it’s a pretty amazing place. You can trace ownership in records all the way back to the Mahele. And I discovered that the land was highly leveraged. At the end of the day it was mortgaged for $88 million to a bank in Norway. He set up shell companies and even invented a sham investor in Kaneohe. He was easy to track down, and he was dumbfounded when I called him. He said he had no clue [about the project]. Chidiac had kind of pulled a name out of a hat.
I had copied out–at great personal expense–hundreds of these records. I had them spread out on the floor, thinking how the hell can I make a story out of this? But it actually won a national award from the Newsletter Publisher’s Association.
We have such a small circulation, and it’s really nice when other publications pick up what we do.
MT: I can imagine. Have you ever done any big stories on Maui?
PT: In 1994, I got a call that people were encroaching on the State Beach Reserve in Kihei. All the land fronting the beach in Kihei is part of the reserve. I flew over and we walked as far as we could. We found all kinds of problems. The story I wrote was titled, “Public Lands in Private Hands.” That really got folks in Kihei agitated. I gave a talk to a neighborhood group, and the state eventually took action.
PT: I also wrote a lot about the Lahaina Waste Treatment Plant in 1992. At the time, there were concerns that effluent could be coming out of the injection wells.
MT: I’m amazed it’s taken so long to prove that that’s, in fact, the case.
PT: We try to be statewide in our coverage. In our August issue, we’ll focus on a similar problem on Kauai.
MT: What’s your background?
PT: I majored in philosophy and history in college, and I have a master’s degree in philosophy. I never thought I’d dive into the intricacies of fishery management. It’s been a real education, but a lot of fun. I wish every journalist could have this experience.
We take arcane [information] and translate it into terms that can be understood by what I call the “motivated reader.” They’re difficult issues, and we try to make them intelligible. But there’s no way an average person will understand the intricacies of fisheries management by reading newspapers.
MT: You earlier mentioned that you worked for a daily in St. Louis. Why did you leave?
PT: I worked at the copy desk, and then I wrote editorials. I love to write. But the work situation with colleagues and bosses wasn’t ideal. I got so stressed.
PT: If you go back 30 years, and even still today, there was a lot of sexism. Then it was a lot harder for women to address it head-on. After I’d written an editorial [for example], I’d come in the next day and a biker calendar with women would be on my desk. It was such an affront. Also, I wasn’t getting equal pay for equal work. When I confronted my boss, he gave me a raise.
So I bailed, and I’m so happy I did.
MT: Why come to Hawaii?
PT: In 1985, I got a fellowship at the University of Hawaii that was sponsored by the Gannett Foundation. It was a course in Asian Studies. That was my introduction to Hawaii. But I was also interested in writing about environmental issues. I made a lot of friends, and moved out four years later.
MT: How has Environment Hawai‘i evolved over the years?
PT: It started out as eight pages of teeny tiny type. After the first year we moved to a larger size type. Two years later we moved to 12 pages. Gradually, we added photos. Most recently, we added color.
As far as content is concerned, when I started out, I would have one topic be the focus of the issue. There would be a main story, editorials and sidebars, all within a single focus.
MT: Ok, that’s about all the questions I have. Oh, wait: how often do you file public records requests?
PT: Oh, all the time. And both state and federal, too. I always work on a laptop and take extensive notes, so I can avoid copying charges. But back when I was working on the Hayward story, they said I could just come down and take a look. It was disclosure on request. But now, I would have to wait at least 10 days [after filing a request]. Then I’d get a bill for several hundred dollars. Then I’d have to protest…
It’s really a huge step backwards. It’s infuriating.
For more information or to see past stories like the ones hyperlinked above, go to Environment-Hawaii.org.
Cover design: Jenn Carter