Saving Ka‘u's Crown
County, state and federal
officials, private benefactors
and massive public support come together to preserve Honu‘apo
(Hawaii Island Journal
- Jan. 16, 2006*)
By Alan D. McNarie
It's a typical weekday
afternoon on the Ka'u Coast. The parking lot at Whittington County Beach Park is
empty; the picnic shelters stand deserted. But next door to the park, on the tract
of land known as Honu‘apo, a dozen SUVs are parked in the shade of the large trees
along the rocky coast. Children are swimming and snorkeling in the tidepools. A
grandfather is teaching his grandson how to cast with a rod and reel.
Nearby, picnickers watch a more traditional Hawaiian fishing method in action. A
throw-net fisherman stands as motionless as haku'u (black-crowned night heron),
stalking his prey near the old wall that once marked the entrance to the "fish pond"
- a natural estuary that was expanded and walled off in ancient times to grow mullet
for Hawaiian ali'i. (One overly ambitious local Hawaiian ruler was reportedly killed
for making his people work too long and hard at fishpond expansion in the area).
The fisherman casts his circular net, then laughingly acknowledges that he's made
a mistake. He hauls the net in and carefully disentangles a kokala, a porcupine
fish. Much to the delight of the watching children, the kokala has done what a provoked
kokala does best - blown itself up into a spiny living balloon the size of a volleyball.
The fisherman gingerly places the prickly sphere back in the water, then goes back
to his post near the rock wall.
The soul of Whittington Beach Park has always been this coastline, not the picnic
shelters. The park has no actual beach, only a stony, exposed shore and a dilapidated
pier. But generations of local children have learned to fish and swim in Honu‘apo's
tidepools, a lava reef protecting them from the area's notoriously powerful waves
and rip currents. The former mullet pond is murky with silt and choked by a mat
of salt grass so thick that it's difficult to tell where land ends and water begins,
but the pond still serves local fishermen. It's reverted to being what estuaries
usually are the world over - a nursery, teeming with tiny fry and fingerlings, many
of which may return to the ocean as adults.
The pond also serves larger wildlife. Real haku'u stalk the shallows, sometimes
only yards from human fishermen. Green sea turtles have been known to swim into
it, probably to graze on algae. A flock of shore birds wheels overhead. In an isolated
dead tree surrounded by a broad moat of marsh grass, a single white cattle egret
presides from an upper branch over a flock of smaller roosting birds. Pueo (endemic
Hawaiian owls) and barn owls hunt here.
Other species occasionally
take refuge at Honu‘apo.
"When there's a big storm passing south of the island, what I've seen are huge flocks
of albatross come in," said local activist John Replogle. "You see them there, landing
and taking off, swirling around. From a distance, they're black. It's quite a sight."
But none of this area is actually part of Whittington Beach Park. Even a large section
of the park ground itself, from the restrooms to the parking lot, has been private
property for decades. When the California-based company LANDCO bought most of that
land nearly three years ago, residents feared that their favorite bit of shoreline
would become another subdivision.
That's not going to happen. Thanks to an unprecedented cooperative effort between
local residents, government officials, private land trusts and the landowner, the
land of Honu‘apo will instead be joined with Whittington into an expanded county
park. Last month, the property was purchased by the Trust for Public Lands, a non-profit
organization that specializes in purchasing and holding sensitive areas until government
agencies can arrange to take them over as public property. If all goes as planned,
the state will purchase Honu‘apo as early as next month.
Funding will come, in part, through a million dollar grant generated by Hawai'i's
new Legacy Lands Act. The Act sets aside revenue from the state's conveyance tax
to provide money to purchase and protect land deemed to have "natural, environmental,
recreational, scenic, cultural, agricultural production, or historic value."
The remainder of the purchase money includes $1.5 million from the National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Agency's Estuary Protection Fund; $500,000 from the Hawai'i County's
Capital Improvement Projects Fund; $230,000 from the County's Parks and Recreation
Department; and $170,000 raised by Ka'u residents, including large donations by
several local landowners.
According to Josh Stanbro of the Trust from Public Lands, once the state gets title
to the 225-acre parcel, it will turn the land over to the county via "executive
order" - a legal vehicle that authorizes the county to manage the land as if it
were the owner, except it cannot sell the property. Should the county ever choose
to divest itself of the parcel, it automatically reverts back to the state. The
county runs the rest of Whittington under a similar executive order.
LANDCO has also agreed to donate another small parcel that connects the two sections
of the future park. According to Stanbro, a second landowner has agreed to donate
yet another small parcel containing the current parking lot and the section of the
park between the lot and the restrooms.
Some say this will be
the largest beach park in the county - perhaps in the state. But "beach park" is
something of a misnomer. "Coastal park" might be a better name - a park of tidepools
and marshes and brackish ponds; of picnic grounds, plantation-era ruins and archaeological
sites; of coconut groves, koa trees and wildlife. It's a microcosm of some of the
best features of the entire Ka'u coast. U.S. Congressman Ed Case calls it "one of
the crown jewels of that coast."
The Partnering Strategy
"People in Ka'u have had a reputation of being very independent," says Stanbro,
"yet on this, I have never seen people work so closely together."
Stanbro says that TPL's
involvement with Honu‘apo got started about a year ago, when he was contacted by
Ka'u community members. From that point, he said, the rescue came together with
"We've been working on Wao Kelo o Puna (a lowland Puna rainforest that TPL is involved
in preserving) for four years, and it will probably be going on five...whereas Honu‘apo
has happened in less than a year," he says. "In terms of how quickly the community
mobilized and was able to secure the federal, state and county funding, it was really
a testament to Ka'u."
But in fact, the effort to save Honu‘apo for the public began much earlier than
that, according to Councilman Bob Jacobson (Puna-Ka'u-South Kona).
"I started sitting down
at the beach about ten years ago, with a few friends, trying to figure out how we
could get this land into the public domain," Jacobson said. "For years, we had no
answer. We didn't get much done for a long time. I wasn't the only one sitting around
trying to figure out how to buy it."
Back then, he notes, "The county could have bought it quite cheaply - a million
and a half, rather than this, [but] there didn't seem to be the will; the money
wasn't there and the economy wasn't that great."
Galvanizing the Community
The pivotal moment in those early efforts may have come when Jacobson and local
community activists teamed up with the late Jerry Rothstein of Public Access Shorelines
Hawai'i on a shoreline access survey for Honu‘apo area. Including the fishpond within
the shoreline would be a key to ensuring public access to the pond and tidepools
and to pushing any future homes back from the shore. This would also prevent a zoning
debacle such as those in Kapoho and other island locations, where houses straddle
sensitive tide pools and are extremely vulnerable to storm tides and tsunamis.
"When the time came for shoreline certification, we had the whole spectrum of Ka'u
show up - from children to a 90-year old," Jacobson recalls. "At that point, people
asked, 'What can we do?'"
A core group worked to find a way to save the land from development. They included
the Nature Conservancy's John Replogle; and respected Hawaiian kupüna Pele Hanoa
and her daughter, Keolalani Hanoa. Several participants told the Journal that the
interactions were remarkably free of fractiousness.
"There was not any room
for egos or infighting," said Jacobson. "All we could do was get together and do
the best job that could be done."
"Among the first people from Ka'u to contact TPL about Honu‘apo and the Ka'u coastal
region were Pele Hanoa from the Burial Council and John Replogle, who helped form
Ka Ohana o Honu‘apo," Stanbro says. "Both of those folks were so passionate about
protecting that land that it really got TPL interested."
And the developers themselves
were apparently impressed with the community's passion.
"We just felt it was only right to give the people of Hawai'i and Ka'u a fair chance
to purchase the land for protection and so we took a risk, held it off of the market,
and worked with TPL to see if they could put something together by the end of the
year," stated LANDCO president Mark Lester in a press release.
That year-end deadline
was one factor that made TPL's role vital. Without the group stepping in to make
the purchase as soon as funding was pledged, government officials might not have
been able to put a package together in time. Federal and state funding mechanisms,
"move pretty slow," Stanbro notes, and governmental fiscal cycles "often don't mesh
with the speed that the landowners want to move."
But TPL couldn't lay down the money for Honu‘apo without assurances they would eventually
get it back. Instead of approaching a single agency for the entire amount, the would-be
rescuers devised a strategy of going for smaller funding grants, then using those
funds as "earnest money" to leverage matching and supplemental grants from other
In this case, however, Stanbro also gives high marks to state administrators for
moving the process along at a relatively rapid clip. "The people within DLNR have
made it go quicker than it could have gone. They've been working hard to get the
funding there by the end of February."
Stanbro credits Honu‘apo's
rescue to a huge cast of characters - including the land-owners, bureaucrats such
as DLNR Chair Peter Young and Hawai'i County Executive Director Andy Levin, and
a host of county, state and federal legislators. But what really made the deal possible,
he says, was "the community's dedication and their support throughout the process.
People were writing letters of support, testifying, doing research on the property,
as well as capturing it on film."
To bolster written and oral testimony from the community, Ka'u Calendar editor Julia
Neal teamed up with cinematographer Danny Miller to produce a short video documentary
called Saving Ka'u's Coast. Prominently featured were sweeping shots of endangered
places such as Honu‘apo, Kawa and Punalu'u, as well as interviews with Stanbro,
Replogle, the Hanoas and Abel Simeone, as well as other local activists, küpuna
and just plain residents, talking about the importance of these places to the life
of the community. Just as Neal and Miller were about to show the documentary at
hearings on Jacobson's funding proposal, nature threw them some bonus footage: a
rare Hawaiian monk seal came to Honu‘apo and became an instant movie star.
That community support made it easier to galvanize legislators at all levels of
government into action. Some, such as Jacobson, needed no prodding. Others became
"The three key folks there, in order of importance for getting (state funding) were
(State) Senator (Russell) Kokubun, House Speaker Calvin Say and Rep. Bob Herkes,"
says Stanbro. "The back story here is kind of interesting... Bob Herkes invited
some of the House members, including Speaker Say, to do sort of a field trip of
Ka'u and South Kona.
"They had visited both Honu‘apo and Miloli'i. I think they were impressed with how
the rural community still relied on access to the ocean and the open lands on the
coastlines," continued Stanbro.
"I've heard both Rep. Herkes and Speaker Say talk about… how Honu‘apo and Miloli'i
represent how important these lands are to maintain traditional connections to the
land in rural Hawai'i."
Stanbro says that Sen. Daniel Inouye and his staff were key in securing the $1.5
million NOAA grant.
"One of the first calls I made was to (Inouye's) office, and they said that funding
could be available for Honu‘apo if partners were brought in."
As spring progressed into summer last year, the strategy of seeking multiple funding
sources and matching funds, backed by grassroots lobbying, began to pay off handsomely.
At the time, Jacobson told the Journal that after the state money had been secured,
he'd gone to State Sen. Kokubun to thank him for his help; Kokubun told him that
without the county's $500,000 in seed money, the state wouldn't have come up with
its million for the project. Jacobson, in turn, credits the people of Ka'u.
Jacobson said the county's funding wouldn't have occurred without the Ka'u community's
massive turnout. "I told them, 'I can't do anything without you. What I need is
a community mandate,'" he said.
"And the community came through. There was more unity on this than on any issue
I've ever seen in Ka'u. Their testimony was devastating and right on point.
"We leveraged a half a million dollars in county funds into a three million dollar
land purchase," said Jacobson.
As it turned out, that
boast was premature. When all the county, state and federal dollars were tallied
up, they were still $170,000 short of LANDCO'S $3.4 million asking price.
So the community rolled up its sleeves for one last push. On Saturday, December
10, a ho'olaulea was held at Whittington to raise the rest of the money. The matching-funds
principle was used again, this time with the private sector. Several local landowners
contributed five-figure sums. One was Andy Shaw, who hopes to subdivide part of
a nearby stretch of pastureland into 20-acre farms, while leaving the coast below
it as public space. Shaw offered to contribute $50,000 toward the purchase of Honu‘apo
if the community would match it.
The community did.
"I wrote a check for $50,000 which they (the TPL) definitely cashed," Shaw told
Other big contributors - including Ed Olson, Big Isle Ventures (Chris Manfredi,
who owns land across the highway), Roger and Terri Meeker, EWM Investments, Inc.
(Ernest Moody), and the HELCO Foundation - joined hundreds of community members
who contributed cash, crafts, food and music. By the end of the day, they had met
the $170,000 goal.
"A big part of this whole thing is that this truly was a work of love," says Replogle.
"There was no 'me' in the thing at all. It was all of us doing the thing for all
Joining the Past and the Future
While purchasing Honu‘apo is an important step, this is not the same thing as preserving
the area. In fact, "preservation" itself becomes a somewhat problematic concept;
while Honu‘apo has always played a vital role in Ka'u community life, that role
has continuously changed. When the first westerners arrived in Ka'u, Honu‘apo was
a Hawaiian fishing village. The village was decimated by drought in the 1840s and
finally destroyed by an earthquake and tsunami in 1868.
By the 1880s it had been reborn as a bustling commercial port, with a sugar mill
and a railroad. An account of the port at that time, quoted in a West Hawaii Today
story by Carolyn Lucas, describes a drab, smelly industrial facility with almost
no trees, which "suggested prosperity but not beauty." A concrete wall supplanted
the ancient Hawaiian fishpond wall, and the estuary became a millpond. But Lucas
notes that as roads improved, the port gradually declined; it was wiped out by the
tsunami of 1946.
The ruins of Honu‘apo became ranchland, and grazing cattle muddied the waters of
the estuary. Another tsunami hit the area in the 1970s, further damaging the area.
But the ghostly foundations of sugar-era buildings and the ruins of earlier Hawaiian
walls remain - along with a riotous living heritage, a mixture of indigenous Hawaiian
plants and animals, "canoe species" brought by Polynesian voyagers, far-ranging
seabirds and invasive plants and animals that came over the years via steamships
The abandoned village remained a favorite fishing spot, and locals used it for camping
and picnics. But it also attracted vandals, drug dealers and people who were simply
down and out and needed a place to sleep. With no roads, four-wheel-drive trails
have lacerated the vegetation. Trees have been cut down - including, recently, several
coconut palms, as well as an ancient koa tree that had probably survived the botanical
holocaust of the commercial port.
Honu‘apo is about to
become something it's never been before: an officially designated public park. But
in the process of figuring out what kind of park it should be, the new stewards
will have to deal with what it has been. Which Honu‘apo should be preserved? The
ancient Hawaiian village? The Sugar Era foundations? Should the Hawaiian fishpond
be restored, or should the area be allowed to return to a natural wetland? Which
plant species are weeds to be rooted out, and which are legacies to be cultivated?
One of the next obvious steps is to conduct archaeological, botanical and wildlife
surveys to help in that decision-making process. Replogle and Stanbro point out
other immediate needs: a volunteer watch system must be set up to prevent further
vandalism, 4WD trails need to be established and enforced to minimize the destruction
of plant life, and weeds need to be trimmed back so people can finally see exactly
what they have just purchased. And resources need to be found to do all this.
The community is again stepping into the breach. A new nonprofit organization called
Ka 'Ohana o Honu‘apo has been established to partner with the county in managing
the park. It has already held some informal volunteer work days to clear weeds and
pick up trash. More work days will be scheduled after the state has assumed control
of the property.
"Everybody's going to have to start working to take care of where they live," said
Replogle. "We can't keep expecting others to do it for us."
Those interested in contributing
or participating should contact Ka 'Ohana O Honu‘apo at 929-9891.
*This article is
posted with the permission Laurie V. Carlson and Alan D. McNarie.