Transfer of forested conservation lands to permanent pasture – Take Action!

Forest or Pasture?

by Debbie Ward

Transfer of forested conservation lands to permanent pasture will be decided at a BLNR meeting to be announced in August or September. The agenda item was removed in June, but we expect it to posted again soon. To see if it’s on the agenda, and find out how to do e-mail or oral testimony, visit about 5 to 7 days prior. Testimony will be needed! 

The Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) is expected to place the transfer of two large parcels currently under the management of DLNR to the Department of Agriculture.  They are Kapapala Ranch in Ka`u, and KK Ranch in Hamakua. Some lands contain remnant native forests, or are strategic restoration sites. Pasture lands were originally diverse native forests – frequently overlaying the climatic zone best suited for koa. Forest protection and restoration are the most beneficial land use actions for sequestering carbon in Hawai`i, per a report from the Greenhouse Gas Sequestration Task Force. For more information, members can visit:

We encourage members who are interested in forest protection, watershed protection, and invasive species management to consider providing testimony in opposition to these transfers.

Background: In 2003, the Legislature enacted Act 90, Session Laws of Hawaii 2003 (Act 90), which created a process to transfer non-agricultural park lands under the management of the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) to the Department of Agriculture (DOA) subject to the mutual agreement of the Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) and the Board of Agriculture (BOA) and approval by the Governor.

In the 2023 session, Dawn Chang was approved as Chair of DLNR and BLNR. Since taking office, under heavy pressure, she has decided to transfer lands that DLNR had previously sought to keep under DLNR management, due to lobbying by the ranching community, Farm Bureau and the Cattleman’s Association.  The primary demand for transfer appears to be the lack of flexibility in the assignment and pricing of leases to established ranching ventures.

Unfortunately, despite the need for more flexibility in the way that general lease are handled, the legislature has failed to give DLNR statutory leasing powers like those of DOA, which are more favorable to ranchers because, under the DOA statutes: DOA does not need to go to public auction before entering into a general lease: DOA is not required to set lease rents at fair market value, while DLNR has a statutory and public trust obligation charge fair market rents to its lessees; DOA can enter direct leases with an existing tenant, resulting in a cumulative term longer than 65 years for a single tenant; and Other agricultural uses in addition to cattle can be permitted.

The 2021 Act 90 Working Group’s Final Report, authored by the House and Senate Water and Land committee chairs, stated that “certain agricultural lands under DLNR have multiple management objectives, which can include agricultural production, forestry, native forest restoration, watershed protection, habitat conservation, public recreation, fire fuel suppression, and other public purposes which clearly fall within DLNR’s purview and mission. These multiple-use lands should remain under DLNR’s management.”

Historically, DLNR has opposed bills that mandate the transfer of lands under DLNR management to DOA, even if those lands are in agricultural or pasture use. The primary reason is that these lands, especially certain pasture lands, possess significant resource values, such as forestry and watershed protection, that DLNR believes should be considered along with agricultural and pasture use. Another reason is that certain lands may have other uses that may provide significant public benefits above and beyond agricultural use.

Some lands contain remnant native forests, or are strategic restoration sites. Pasture lands were originally diverse native forests – frequently overlaying the climatic zone best suited for koa. Some of them still have a closed canopy of native forest, like the former pasture RP that was voluntarily discontinued and designated the Waiea Natural Area Reserve in South Kona. Others may have been converted to grasslands, yet would be relatively easy and strategic to restore because the soil still contains a seedbank of koa and other natives; they are in high elevations where native birds and insects can also distribute seeds; and are far from invasive plants that plague restoration sites.

Protection of existing forests, and restoring forests in grasslands, is critically important for maintaining water supplies, particularly as much of Hawaii’s driest areas are predicted to become even drier. This is a particular threat to Hawaii’s agriculture which relies on water pumped or delivered from these watershed forests. Additionally, forest protection and restoration are the most beneficial land use actions for sequestering carbon in Hawai`i, per a report from the Greenhouse Gas Sequestration Task Force.  In some cases, managing the species on these pasture leases (rather than existing Reserves) is necessary because the leases may contain the main – or only – population of a species.

On areas proposed for transfer to DOA, DLNR intends on including reservations to ensure access for managing hunting, as well as public trails and roads. However, when the lands are transferred, the enforcement of those requirements is much more difficult. For example, lands transferred to DOA in Ookala, Hamakua, Hawai’i included road access to the historic Humu’ula Trail and a public hunting area. However, the lessee locked out the public and DLNR was only able to restore public access after hunters protested and elevated the issue to State legislators. When DLNR is no longer the lessor, the lessee will have less incentive to comply with these terms to ensure critical public access routes are safeguarded for traditional and customary gathering purposes as well as recreational uses.

DLNR oversight of these lands provides flexibility to re-evaluate areas for their highest and best use – which is key to changing land and climate conditions. Some lands might become unusable for pasture due to threats such as Two-Lined Spittle Bug. Under DLNR, the use of these areas could be reconsidered to include reforestation, hunting use, or other purposes in addition to pasture. DLNR is seeking “reversion” clauses in the executive orders to require that if the land is no longer being used for pasture, the land shall be returned to DLNR.

In addition to offering and managing hundreds of pasture leases for decades, DLNR works cooperatively with ranchers on public leased lands as well as private lands. A dozen large mauka ranchers have joined together in watershed partnerships to protect our forested watersheds from threats such as invasive species. DLNR cost-shares land management tasks of mutual benefit, such as fence maintenance, wildfire control, and shared road maintenance. DLNR has secured large Federal grants that support invasive species control and reforestation/timber projects on ranches. The Forest Stewardship program provides matching funds for ranchers willing to commit to sustainable land management practices. In some places, sheep and deer compete for pasture forage. DLNR runs hunting programs to help reduce this problem. DLNR is a HISC agency lead, supporting the first responders and research on problematic ranch species such as the Two-Lined Spittle Bug.

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