The Civil Beat Editorial Board Interview: Hawaii Land Board Chair Suzanne Case

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The Civil Beat Editorial Board Interview: Hawaii Land Board Chair Suzanne Case
The Civil Beat Editorial Board Interview: Hawaii Land Board Chair Suzanne Case


Editor’s note: The Civil Beat Editorial Board and reporters spoke on Wednesday with Suzanne Case, chair of the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources. Case began with a summary of top-of-mind issues before the agencies. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I’m coming up on the end of my second term and thinking a lot about all that we’ve been able to accomplish, what I’m still wanting to make sure that I get done before the end of December. And really, it’s been a remarkable opportunity. I have been able to serve two terms with Gov. David Ige and I’m actually the only one except for Sus Ono in the 1970s that has served for two terms.

It is a remarkable opportunity and it’s a very, very hard job. And I love it, but you really want to be clear about what you’re trying to accomplish because you just have a limited amount of time.

And for me, I think I just got lucky with Gov. Ige — that he’s been so supportive of our mission to preserve and protect our natural and cultural resources and sustainable use. We had this opportunity with the World Conservation Congress in 2016 to really outline the Ige administration agenda. And it was very clear — protect 30% of our forests by 2030, biosecurity, local food and renewable energy. So that’s really been sort of our guiding framework and really helps make sure you stay headed in the right direction.

Department of Land and Natural Resources Chairperson Suzanne Case.
Department of Land and Natural Resources Chair Suzanne Case met with the Civil Beat Editorial Board and reporters on Wednesday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

And then on top of that we have had really remarkable opportunities on the water side to establish in-stream flow standards. We’ve been able to establish over 50 in-stream flow standards since 2015. And that is most of the streams that are really high priority — have conflicts, legacy irrigation, sugar and pineapple irrigation conflicts — and just a remarkable opportunity, along with the growth of traditional customary practices including kalo farming, which, you know, needs water. That’s been just a remarkable opportunity to move those forward where no progress was made for decades.

We’ve been making some great new progress on how we manage parks and how we try to manage the visitor count, marine conservation at Haena (on Kauai) and Kaupulehu. Forest protection, we started at something like 13% of our best remaining forests protected with watershed fencing and controlling invasive species. And we’ve just made steady progress. It takes big money, and the governor and the Legislature have been very supportive of our CIP funding for that — about $4-5 million a year. And that’s allowed us steady progress every year. We’re up to at least 17% fully protected. Now, we’ve done 200 miles of fencing in the forests in 78 ahupuaa (land subdivision) statewide.

So all of those things, you add them up. And I feel really good about our progress and our direction but anxious for the future. We have climate change on the horizon. We’ve got huge problems starting to happen from that. But during this time you do what you can and try to set it up well for the future.

As you know there was a large budget surplus and a lot of people seemed to get some money. Did the DLNR get what it wanted?

I don’t have the exact figures. I hear it was a good year statewide especially in the operating budget side. The budget is not finalized, it’s not approved. The final one remains to be seen. But we had good progress in our permitted funds. One that I’m particularly happy about is $2 million to maintain our trails, which are in really sorry shape, unfortunately, statewide and certainly on Oahu.

We have three staff to maintain trails on Oahu — how do you do that? You have roots, you got mud, you got dangerous bluffs. You got people encouraging people through social media to go out to really dangerous places and, unfortunately, they take selfies. They go on unmaintained trails or off-limit trails. I’m a big hiker myself. They’re such a big part of Hawaii. Our mountains and our ocean are such a big part of who we are. And so our trail maintenance is very far behind. So that was a great lift in the budget this year.

DLNR regulates 1.3 million acres of public lands — that includes forests and parks — 2 million acres of ocean including fisheries, coal reefs, small boat facilities and ocean recreation, and 3 million acres of land in the conservation district. How does one do that?

Well, it’s hard. It’s a lot of work. It’s direct management. I mean, we have 4 million acres in the state, so that’s a large percentage of the state that we manage. It’s direct management of 1.3 million acres and then regulation of public and private lands in the conservation district. It is a large area, and the reefs and marine resources from the coastline out to three miles is the state’s jurisdiction. It’s a huge kuleana. And I have to say, there is great staff really doing the best they can. Anyone who thinks government workers don’t give a rip haven’t met DLNR staff. These are folks who do this constantly with great passion and ability. It’s been a great honor to be able to be part of this organization.

House Bill 2024 on Mauna Kea management is for the governor to decide. The veto intent deadline is later this month. We know the DLNR has a number of objections to that bill. If you could, in a nutshell, summarize your primary concern. Our understanding is that you think it will actually lead to mismanagement.

Yeah, I am concerned about it. I think the bill is well intentioned and I think it’s aiming to resolve conflicts with astronomy and cultural use of the mountain, cultural access to the mountain. It might end up not doing either.

One of the big concerns I have in reviewing the bill is, it takes all the management away from the University of Hawaii. The University of Hawaii has been doing a really good job for over two decades. There is an old narrative based on an audit from over 20 years ago that they needed to manage better. And they did and they do. And we oversee that.

Masked security guard with shades watches demonstrators sing and pray near TMT construction equipment. 10 april 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil BeatMasked security guard with shades watches demonstrators sing and pray near TMT construction equipment. 10 april 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Case opposes legislation awaiting the governor’s review that would significantly alter the management of Mauna Kea. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

We actually have an annual review at the land board in public sunshine of their management, the report on the management plan. Nobody comes. So it’s frustrating to me to have people say that there was mismanagement of the mountain. I think what they mean is they don’t like the TMT (the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope) or, you know, maybe they don’t like astronomy on the mountain, but for what it’s doing it’s really well-managed and it’s probably better managed than the DLNR could do in terms of monitoring our cultural resources, invasive species control; we need to do more management of visitor access to it, but there’s been a lot of work done on establishing rules.

One of the big concerns I have in reviewing the bill is, it takes it takes all the management away from the University of Hawaii.

What this bill does is it takes all that away. It takes it out of the jurisdiction of the land board entirely and the Land Use Commission. So what does that mean? Does that mean this new entity doesn’t have to honor the conservation district rules? And who oversees it? I mean, that’s very scary to me, because all of this land is conservation land, which means it’s very carefully managed.

And if you look at the bill, to me it appears to eliminate that oversight as well as the land board oversight under (Hawaii Revised Statutes) Chapter 171 for land management — gives it to this new entity. But the new entity, what does it do with it? So I am concerned about that. I’m just worried that a well-intentioned bill that is trying to resolve disputes won’t actually get there and in the process will be very disruptive, extremely disruptive.

If the governor signs the Mauna Kea bill and this new commission is overseeing the mauna, then what will DLNR’s role be? And how do you mitigate concerns?

Very unclear to me. I mean, we will do our part — technically it’s attached to DLNR, but that means attached for administrative purposes, not for oversight purposes, as I understand it. So it’s unclear what any of the rest of our role is.

Would DLNR have a seat on that commission?

There is a representative; the chair DLNR has a seat on that board.

In March, the Supreme Court issued its ruling concerning East Maui water that the state, meaning the DLNR, should not have allowed diversion of millions of gallons of water a day from those streams (without an environmental impact statement). Are we finally resolving that issue? 

Yes. One of the achievements I’m most proud of is the Commission on Water Resource Management’s establishment of in-stream flow standards on 27 streams in East Maui, which never had updated in-stream flows standards. It was just status quo since 1988. And it was in litigation and a contested case since the early 2000s.

And so we finished a contested case in 2018 and issued very, very carefully thought through in-stream flow standards that look region-wide to allocate 100% streamflow to taro streams and some other streams, to protect habitat on a number of other streams and some that were not considered important habitat streams, were status quo. So that was really landmark, I think. There are still issues in East Maui, some of which I can’t discuss because they’re in contested case.

Stream East MauiStream East Maui
While there has been progress on updating in-stream flow standards, issues with East Maui streams persist. DLNR

There’s another set of streams that are in contested case that were not part of the original request for in-stream flow standards. So that is still to be resolved. And also the whole issue of leasing water, actually getting to leases, is still unresolved — the environmental impact statement has been done. Still to be done is appraisal and actual issuance of a lease. So it’s still a ways off. We have been making progress on it.

And by in-stream flow standards, in layman’s terms, what does that mean? 

Yes, it’s how much water should stay in the stream to protect stream habitat, recreational uses, downstream uses, kalo farming versus how much can be taken out of the stream for other reasonable and beneficial and public trust uses, like domestic use which is constitutionally mandated, sustainable agriculture, Department of Hawaiian Home Land reservations and the like.

We want to make sure that we do a good balancing. And that is a stream by stream establishment of a number taken at a point in time that is set to protect a certain amount of water. And that just varies stream by stream on what’s most important to protect or what’s able to be taken out.

One of the things that House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke and Senate Ways and Means Chair Donovan Dela Cruz always complain about is you’re not filling positions that we’re creating and also you’re not using your special fund. When it comes to DLNR, are you filling those positions that are granted by the special fund and using those moneys accordingly?

Yes, we actually made very intense efforts fairly early on in our administration to really go through the whole vacancy process and understand where anything was hung up. We did a Kaizen process to really map it out. We had dozens of steps — some of them we narrowed down, we streamlined. So we always have vacancies because people leave, they retire, you’ve got to refill. But we’ve been very, very aggressive about filling our vacancies because we want to make sure that we get funding allocated from the Legislature. We need the positions. We do it as fast as we can.

Right now, the unemployment rate is super low, 3.5%. It’s very hard to fill positions everywhere, public and private. And so we face the same challenges. But one thing that was really extraordinary that we’ve been able to develop is that the Legislature has authorized funds for staff, staff positions for more Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement officers. And we had a hold on others during the pandemic and the economic downturn. So we just are in the process of hiring 50 conservation officers. And most of the newest effort in DOCARE, which is a total transformation, is to establish a DOCARE training program. And it’s like a nine-month training program. So these new officers have to be, first of all, qualified to be able to do the job. And then they go through a long training program.

DLNR Building Kalanimoku Building. 16 may 2016.DLNR Building Kalanimoku Building. 16 may 2016.
The Department of Land and Natural Resources is housed in the Kalanimoku Building, directly across Punchbowl Street from the Hawaii State Capitol. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

And with this, we’re able to get anyone who is interested in natural and cultural resource protection from the enforcement side, whether they have experience or not. And they can go through basically an entry-level program. And so instead of hiring officers, new officers from other enforcement arms of the state or county, which don’t have the natural and cultural resource focus, we’re getting people who have that passion and commitment from the beginning of their career. And so we already went through pilot training programs, and it’s just been excellent. We’re very, very excited to be able to get a whole new cadre of officers with that dedication and training.

Ranchers and food producers are really concerned about their ability to have security, invest in their operations and things like that. A working group was put in place last year and came out with the several recommendations about transferring lands between DLNR and the Department of Agriculture but House Bill 1658 died in conference. Do you think there’s anything wrong with Act 90 as it exists now? And then secondly, could you tell us what you think of perhaps a resolution one day.

From the DLNR standpoint, it’s really important to ensure that we protect the multiple uses of these pasture lands. They are large areas adjacent to our native forests — they’re really remnant forest lands. And they’re the lands that we access for traditional customary practices, land management, hunting, endangered species protection, lots of really important uses that are not just cattle but can include cattle. And so it’s that close working relationship that is our goal. And we actually have a good, close working relationship between Forestry and Wildlife in the land division, because these are lands that are not set aside for particular forest uses because they have this commercial use. And so it’s this middle ground.

And what we’ve tried to do is work with the cattle ranchers to provide the security that they’re looking for, but also really cooperative relationships so that we can ensure that these multiple uses are protected. If you just transfer them all to the Department of Agriculture, they don’t have the multiple-use mandate. And they can lease it out for agricultural use with really no restrictions. And that means in agricultural land, you could clear cut it all. If you have remnant forest on these lands, you could cut it all down, you could dig it all up and farm it. You wouldn’t be able to necessarily control invasive species the way we do.

From the DLNR standpoint, it’s really important to ensure that we protect the multiple uses of these pasture lands.

I am very disappointed that we have such a conflict because I’ve done lots of work in my career with cattle ranching all over the western United States in very cooperative relationships. And I remain hopeful that we can and we do in some places work cooperatively with the ranchers without them having to feel like they don’t want to work with DLNR, because it’s very important to the public, all of our public trust users, that we protect these lands. So this is an unresolved issue. Act 90 itself requires the approval of both boards. So the way Act 90 has been working is fine. We’ve transferred 19,000 acres to the Department of Agriculture and 19,000 acres to the Agribusiness Development Corporation. And those are all approved by both the land board and the Board of Agriculture. So the way that’s set up, it works fine.

Act 90 called for the transfer and management of non-agricultural park lands and facilities from DLNR to the Department of Agriculture to ensure the long-term productivity of the state’s agriculture. But it’s a work in progress. Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2022

But there are ranchers who nevertheless want to transfer over, and we don’t think that that’s going to protect those lands. And, from a climate change standpoint, this is an important thing. We do need to be able to restore our forests. And that’s a great opportunity to work cooperatively with ranchers to do forest restoration alongside and just figure out the right places and each property to do what. So there’s a lot of opportunities. And this is a global climate change issue. And we can be part of the solution there as well.

What is the solution to this problem of old earthen dams, especially as it seems to be growing more urgent with climate change? It also seems to be an incredibly expensive issue. 

We’re right in the middle of this problem. It is a climate change problem. I think the rain bombs that we’re seeing, the really intense rain in specific areas can create the kind of situation that you point out in Haiku at Kaupakalua Reservoir. And that one overtopped. When it overtopped an older earthen dam, it can start to erode underneath. And it is a danger. The dams actually help with flood control up to a point because it moderates the flow of heavy stream flows. But once the reservoir fills up, then it can become a danger and the risk of a failure. If it fails, it’s catastrophic for the downstream users.

Officials surveying the damage of the Kaupakalua overtopping. Climate change has only increased the risks to the state’s earthen dams. DLNR

So our engineering division runs the dam safety program. And this was an area that was kind of progressing slowly, I guess. We had dam owners that were notified of the need to address safety issues and were not making great progress. And after the Kaupakalua Dam overtopped, I went out there right away, saw what a huge threat it was. That was my first trip in the middle of the Covid crisis. And so I asked the governor to release funds that had been withheld from the budget for fiscal management, to release $2 million to accelerate our dam safety inspection program statewide. So it’s been greatly accelerated. And we are taking more action to follow up with the dam owners to make sure that they know of and address their safety issues. We have brought several before the land board for fines, including at Wahiawa Reservoir and others.

And so we are making progress on that. And it is really important to address because we’re going to continue to have these problems with climate change and these old earthen dams. A common solution can be to just breach the reservoir and not collect water, or to lower it so that it’s below the regulated state, a much smaller safety issue.

The interagency biosecurity plan came in reaction to an economic downturn in 2008. Then Covid came along, and that has kind of stifled progress in a way. Is there any focus on this biosecurity plan? How do you feel the plan is going in terms of its 2027 end? And do you think that it might be possible to achieve a majority of its goals?

We have achieved a lot of the goals already. There are remaining goals that are difficult to achieve — they’re time consuming. But it is a very good document to help guide our biosecurity for Hawaii. What is coming in and how do we address it? And so we work very collaboratively with the Department of Agriculture to try to make sure that the ports of entry are properly secured and inspected. And there are lots of areas that we need further reinforcement on. Right now we’re working to try to survey the ports of entry, harbors and airports, for mosquitoes, for example, that are not on a particular island. And there’s a lot more funding that we need to implement the biosecurity measures.

Part of the biosecurity has been the aquatic invasive species. And we are working on trying to implement the new federal statute that really preempts the state’s ability to do certain biosecurity measures. We’re trying to work with the federal government to sort that out right now, because it’s a big threat for Hawaii. You get invasive algae, invasive corals from other places. So the biosecurity plan is an excellent guiding document. And we are working to implement it.

Are there things you’re doing to cement some of these policies, make them more lasting? Are there concerns about whoever might come in undoing your hard work?

We do as much as we can while we’re here. And then when we leave, we leave it to the next person. The public is an important watchdog. Maybe the next person will do better at some things. Maybe there will be things that we are very concerned about. And that’s why we have a good Board of Land and Natural Resources, a good Commission on Water Resource Management. We have other boards and commissions that we work with at DLNR. We’re a democracy. It’s a public process. We all have to keep an eye on it. And we all have to do our best to do what we think is right and hope that everybody respects our democracy and respects the policies that are laid out in the Constitution and appropriately balances the policies that don’t always mesh.

We do as much as we can while we’re here. And then when we leave, we leave it to the next person.

We have natural and cultural resource protection policies. We have sustainable agriculture policies, we have renewable energy policies. Those are all very, very important policies to move Hawaii and really the planet forward. They don’t always mesh right. And so what you want to make sure of is that the people that are in charge know the issues and are doing their best to do a proper balancing and without being overly influenced by personal interests or private benefit. That’s what you want to kind of watch out for at all times. Are you doing the right thing for the public, making sure individuals are not overly burdened but also not overly benefited at the expense of the public?

We had a story on Pololu Valley on the Big Island. Concerns about public safety. Concerns about people crossing private property. There’s cultural elements as well. About a half-million dollars was budgeted for restrooms and parking and the trailheads. Do you have an update on how things are going?

I’m sorry, I don’t have a budget in front of me, so I can’t give you an update, but I will say Pololu is a great microcosm of things that are happening all over the state, where you have places that are very special, historic and natural areas. People want to go see them and visit the people who are from the area. I want to make sure that’s done respectfully. You have these issues about people driving their cars into residential areas and parking and making noise and leaving trash and waste. And that’s happening all over the state. And that’s exactly what we’re trying to manage better. At Pololu it’s a great group of committed local community members helping out. And that’s a good model for a lot of places in the state. We need that local involvement to help alleviate the impacts that visitors have on an area.

A good model for managing these resources?

We can’t do everything. DLNR cannot do everything. And there are lots of people who have very strong bonds with their place, whether it’s Hawaiian cultural, deep heritage bond or a personal attachment to a place, or somebody grew up there or they move there and they love the place and they’re attached to it. And we have worked with groups throughout the state that come together as community groups to take care of a place. And that’s a really excellent model that we’ve continued to grow.

Monk seals — is the word getting out that it’s not a good idea to harass and kill them?

It is getting out in the general public. We have conflicts. In particular we had what looks like half a dozen intentional killings on Molokai. So obviously on Molokai there’s some differences of opinion about whether monk seals should be protected. They are protected by law. They are native Hawaiian animals endemic to the main Hawaiian Islands. And if you look back into deep history, they weren’t imported here, they were here first and it looks like there were different population sizes in different areas. I’m not talking about centuries back, but they are native, native to Hawaii.

Rocky the Monk Seal rests safely on a strip of beach near the Ala Wai Boat Harbor.Rocky the Monk Seal rests safely on a strip of beach near the Ala Wai Boat Harbor.
An endangered Hawaiian monk seal rests on a strip of beach near Oahu’s Ala Wai Harbor. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

And so if we can get that word out that they’re not invasive species and they’re not taking all of our fish — those are, you know, common complaints. They are eating fish off the reef, but so are we. And so it’s important to help people understand that they’re part of our culture, a deep, ancient part of our culture, and important to respect in every way, I think. We have some local challenges with messaging. We also have some visitor challenges with messaging. They’re getting the picture because people are not tolerating that kind of behavior.

From an enforcement standpoint it’s hard to identify the perpetrators. If we get that far, it is a crime, so we’ll run it through the system, and sometimes those crimes are dismissed. One of the drivers behind the Environmental Court is to try to get somebody, a judge, who would be more willing to issue strong punishment for that kind of crime. We also have made great strides in taking violations to the land board. And a lot of the large fines — illegal aquarium fishing fines, extreme poisoning, violations of coastal armoring — those kinds of violations we have been successful in bringing in large fines.

Some of them are contested, and so then you get into a whole legal process that can take months and sometimes years and a large investment of time. So they’re hard to do. But bringing violations to the land board, hopefully getting the word out that we take these things seriously and we’re not going to tolerate them.

A followup on the seals — you were really outspoken on toxoplasmosis.  Are there any new updates there? It’s not just your average human.

Cats are a very pervasive, non-point source pollution problem and I think the updates are when deaths from toxoplasmosis from our marine mammals are verified. And that’s been true for monk seals and for dolphins. And so I think we’re pretty clear now that toxoplasmosis is a big threat. It does come into marine waters and in some specific areas in cat colonies that are maintained near our harbors and in our parks, also through our wastewater system, runoff from the mountains, from feral cat populations that get up into the mountains. I would say they’re a huge threat to our nesting birds. But toxoplasmosis can survive a long time in runoff. And so it’s a very hard problem to tackle. And obviously cat lovers are very passionate and it’s difficult to try to control our feral cat population. It’s really out of control, our feral cat populations. That is a problem for our ecosystem.

Is the state doing what it needs to do about climate change? Has Hawaii, in your eight years at the DLNR, made some progress in mitigating against climate change?

I think the whole state has come to the realization that coastal erosion driven by sea level rise from climate change is a big problem and really push is coming to shove here. And our job at DLNR is to make sure we protect our public trust resources and that means in iconic beach areas to make sure that we still have a beach.

And if you do build a seawall or leave sandbags there for years, you’re armoring the shoreline and the waves come in and they crash and they scrape the sand away. They can’t move inland. And then we have no more beach, at least seasonally, out there.

The challenge in all of these areas is you have private property owners on the coast who are desperate to protect their homes. And in some cases, they were granted variances from in county permitting decades ago that mean that they’re much closer to the bluff than they should be. And so you have these early clashes. We had our first house falling into the ocean. That was definitely a wake up call. Our job is to make sure we protect the public trust. And there’s not much more important in Hawaii than our beaches and coastlines.

And so it is a conflict between public trust resources and private use. And we need to be very, very vigilant and understanding that this is a really tough problem for those homeowners. We are trying to help them buy time to find a solution. But it’s going to have to involve moving their structures away from the shoreline in order to be able to protect the public benefit.

What’s your big priority or two in the next six months?

I just want to leave DLNR in good shape. Some of them are pretty basic, just management things. We want to make sure all over processes are working well and that our budgets are in place, our procedures are clear. We’ve made huge progress in digitizing the Bureau of Conveyances, Historic Preservation, even eSign (electronic signatures).

Some of these things that we did in the department and statewide are really technical that you don’t understand or care about from outside, but these make us do our work better. You care when there’s a public interface like being able to search records online at the Bureau of Conveyances SHPD (State Historic Preservation Division). Those kinds of things, they’re very important publicly and a lot of them are behind the scenes. So I want to just do my best to make sure we move forward on all of our goals, leave the place well organized when our term ends.

What’s next for Suzanne Case?

It’s very odd to have a job end and I have a clear ending date. And actually I’m happy for that because it allows me to just stay focused on doing my job. And I’m not thinking about what’s next. I’m looking forward to a break. I am looking forward to not having plans. Maybe eventually I’ll have plans. But, you know, it’s pretty cliche — you want to catch up at home, take care of your family who have been so supportive all these years and have gotten short shrift at home. I just want to do my job when I’m here and worry about the future later.

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