July 2023 Update on Acquisition and Management of Lands at Kamehamenui, Maui

July 2023 Update on Acquisition and Management of Lands at Kamehamenui, Maui


On May 8, 2020, the Board of Land and Natural Resources (Board) approved the purchase of the 3,434-acre parcel at Kamehamenui, Maui, identified as tax map key (2) 2-3-005:002, to be placed into lands held in the public trust.  In its approval, the Board set terms that the land be used for native forest restoration and public access. On June 25, 2021, the Board approved these lands to be designated as a state Forest Reserve, initiating a process of community-driven planning for public land management. With those decisions, the Board launched a historic initiative to restore public benefits to lands threatened with sale, development, and degradation.  This briefing provides background and updates on that initiative. 


The subject parcel is located in the upper elevations of the ahupua‘a of Kamehamenui, Maui, extending from approximately 3,500 feet in elevation to the summit of Haleakala at 9,000 feet.  For millennia, the lands of Kamehamenui supported native forests that sustained vibrant native Hawaiian communities, providing for their cultural and subsistence needs.  Prior to western contact, the Kamehamenui parcel consisted of a mixed mesic forest transitioning to subalpine shrubland upslope.  The forest in the Kula region consisted of a rich mix of native species, including halapepe (Dracaena awahiensis), ala’a (Planchonella sandwicensis), a’e (Zanthoxylem spp.), ‘ai’ai (Streblus pendulinus), and koai’a (Acacia koaia).  Higher up, the koa (Acacia koa) and ʻōhiʻa (Metrosideros polymorpha) canopy supported a diverse understory of culturally important species such as maile (Alyxia stellata), palapalai (Microlepia strigosa), and olopua (Nestegis sandwicensis).  Areas below about 3,000 ft were cultivated in ʻuala (sweet potato) in areas with modest amounts of rainfall (Ladefoged et al. 2009).  Areas above this elevation were not suitable for Hawaiian crops.   

Following western contact, the lands of Kamehamenui were placed into private holdings and forests began to be cleared.  Lower portions were cleared for cropland in order to supply the California Gold Rush (Sunday Star-Bulletin and Advertiser, 1962).  The main crop at that time was the newly introduced “Irish” potato.  The forests of the upper elevations of Kamehamenui were destroyed to make way for cattle ranching operations.  In the years to follow, deforestation was extensive across Maui, resulting in destruction of habitat for native species, loss of water input due to “cloud drip” (where fog intercepts the forest canopy and rips down as a form of rain), soil erosion which filled ponds downslope on the Kihei region (Sunday Star-Bulletin and Advertiser, 1962), loss of native species, and land use practices that contribute to climate change.  Today, Hawaiʻi is known as the endangered species capitol of the world.  The primary cause of that unfortunate distinction is the wholesale destruction of native forests and loss of habitat. 

In 2017, the Division of Forestry and Wildlife learned that the parcel, then privately owned, was being listed on the real estate market for $13M, placing it under threat of sale and development.  Pursuant to its mission to secure lands to be placed into the public trust, restore native ecosystems, and recover endangered species, the division conducted a review of the natural and cultural resources of the lands and concluded that the parcel contained very high potential for protection, restoration, and management of natural and cultural resources, with long term public benefits in the form of forest restoration, watershed protection, endangered species recovery, recreation, trails and access, and traditional and customary practice.  Based on that assessment, the division began scoping acquisition of the parcel in partnership with the Trust for Public Lands1, negotiating a sale price at just over $9.8M.   

Through the efforts that followed, the department closed on the purchase in August 2020 with broad support from community and agency partners, funding from the state legislature, federal grants from the US Forest Service and US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the approval of the Board of Land and Natural Resources2.  The federal funds secured and directed to the purchase were awarded from competitive grant programs exclusively for the purposes of forest restoration, endangered species recovery, and public access.  Conditions for the use of the grant funds include formal and legally binding deed restrictions that prohibit use or management of the lands for any purposes inconsistent with those goals and objectives.  Failure to meet and comply with grant terms and obligations would result in default and highly significant negative impacts on future eligibility for federal grants, impacting potentially millions of dollars in federal fund revenues statewide and opportunities for meaningful public benefits.     

Public Trust

The division’s efforts to acquire the lands at Kamehamenui are part of an active and successful program within the Division of Forestry and Wildlife to identify lands threatened with development that contain high value biological and cultural resources. Had the Division failed to act, the lands would have been sold to private interests and most likely developed. 

As a result of the successful actions taken to acquire the lands, Kamehamenui has now been placed in the public trust in perpetuity for the benefit of the people.  Those benefits include public access, forest products, gathering and subsistence, watershed restoration, native ecosystems, cultural practice, trails and access, equestrian use, and outdoor recreation.  Kamehamenui is ideally situated to provide those public benefits, consistent with responsible stewardship and forest restoration.  The parcel is adjacent to the Kula Forest Reserve, providing direct connectivity to one of the most popular recreational areas on Maui, and can be accessed from different areas, facilitating management of public access.       

Prior to the destruction of the Kamehamenui forests for grazing purposes, the lands supported diverse communities of plants and animals that are found nowhere else on earth.  While much of that habitat has been lost, biological surveys have documented that significant remnants remain, sufficient to ensure successful restoration3.  Although highly disturbed, native species persist in the subalpine zone, including a number of endangered plants and the endangered ‘ua‘u, or Hawaiian Petrel.  Pockets of ʻōhiʻa can still be found in small areas near Hapapa Gulch and despite years of grazing, viable seed banks are expected to be present and respond rapidly once grazing pressure is removed.  Restoration work in similar areas on Maui has demonstrated that the forest will return quickly and dramatically once grazing impacts are removed, restoring fog drip and water retention in just a few years, diverse ground cover, and providing habitat to reintroduce even the most critically endangered species.   Habitat management will include restoration of the native forest and ecosystems and will include long term opportunities for school and community organizations to plant trees and restore native ecosystems through hands-on learning in the field as part of the state’s participation in the global trillion trees initiative.   

Planning and Community Support

The public benefits that will be realized on these lands through public access to native forests and the ecological services they provide are unparalleled, as a result of the unique location and features of these lands.  Those benefits are available to all of the people of Maui, and all are invited to participate in planning and implementation of responsible stewardship.  The Division is currently coordinating a community planning initiative to engage constituents in the development of a management plan for Kamehamenui.  The purpose of the plan is to provide for managed public access and activities that are compatible with stewardship goals and consistent with the purpose and goals of the land acquisition.  The community-based management plan for the 3,434-acre Kamehamenui lands is being developed through broad consultation with community members and constituents, to include planning for forest and watershed restoration, endangered species protection, outdoor recreation, and development of trails and access.  The Division has retained a professional planning firm to assist in the development of planning documents, including the management plan, a cultural impact statement, and an environmental impact statement.  Early consultation with constituents is currently in progress and participation is ongoing.  The Division has convened three in-person public workshops that have been well attended with highly engaged constituents providing hundreds of detailed and substantive comments and suggestions.  The planning team is currently incorporating community input into a draft management plan and Environmental Assessment (EA), in compliance with Chapter 343, HRS.  Following consultation and review, the Division will revise the EA, Cultural Impact Assessment, and management plan based on feedback received. The Division will then submit a final set of documents, incorporating public input, to the Board of Land and Natural Resources.   

The planning process is robust and has received strong public support and participation.  To date, more than 130 people have attended meetings or provided written comments and we have received and documented 394 comments.  The comments span a wide range of interests and concerns, including archery, camping, trails, hiking, biking, equestrian, hunting, access, parking, conservation, ranching, as well as comments suggesting that we take no action.  The overwhelming majority of the comments received provided substantive input on specific issues related to management of public access and natural resource management.  Of the comments received, a minority expressly advocated for taking no action to provide for management of natural resources and public access, preferring for example, that the land remain as a ranch.  Constituent engagement to date has confirmed that the set aside of Kamehamenui for public trust purposes and management of natural resources and public access is overwhelmingly supported by the constituents served by the Division of Forestry and Wildlife. 

Comments received to date also included concerns that public access and impacts to Kamehamenui be effectively managed in a responsible manner to prevent unacceptable impacts to natural resources and neighboring communities.  Concerns expressed include illegal and night-time activities, impacts to view planes, increased traffic, over-tourism, noise, and commercial activities.  The division shares these concerns and recognizes that public access to Kamehamenui must be responsibly managed to prevent negative impacts to communities and natural resources.  These concerns and those received from constituents are being incorporated into the draft management plan that will be made available to the public with a request for additional comments.  The Division intends to take great care to incorporate such concerns and include management strategies and approaches that mitigate the concerns expressed.  

We also received comments expressing concerns about the capacity of the Division to effectively manage natural resources, public access, and impacts from overuse.  While these are valid concerns, we are confident that capacity and readiness are high and we have the resources to effectively manage both the natural resources of Kamehamenui and public access to those resources.  As is the case for most natural resource management agencies, funds are limited and agencies must prioritize cost-effective management efforts to maximize outcomes.  We are confident in our ability to succeed at Kamehamenui because protection and restoration of watersheds and endangered species are among the Division’s highest priorities and Kamehamenui has been prioritized for investment of funding and effort to ensure that public access is both available and adequately staffed and managed.  The Division of Forestry and Wildlife has a strong track record in forest restoration, working with partners to plant more than 400,000 trees in Na Kula Natural Area Reserve and Kahikinui Forest Reserve, for example.  We lead the state in watershed protection, with progress on track to effectively manage 50% of priority watersheds by 2030, well beyond the goals set in the 2016 Sustainable Hawaiʻi Initiative.  To date, we have secured more than $12M in funds to support the purchase and management of the lands and we are in the process of securing additional funds as well as dedicated positions to ensure that staff are present on site full time.  Funds for fencing and ungulate control of the upper 2,168 acres of the parcel have been secured and construction of that fence is in progress.     

Grazing Lease

At the time of purchase, the Kamehamenui parcel was encumbered by a grazing and hunting lease issued for private ranching purposes, which expires on December 30, 2030.  The terms provide for the withdrawal of all or portions of the parcel from the lease with one year notice, which will be necessary to achieve the goals and objectives for the management of the lands in the public trust, consistent with the purposes of the forest reserve, as authorized by the Board and in compliance with conditions set forth in its approval.  However, grazing can play a role in suppressing wildland fires and noxious weeds and the Division plans to implement a phased withdrawal approach that continues to employ grazing in selected areas where it is consistent with public access and resource management objectives.  For example, on June 1, 2022, following notice, the Division withdrew a 2,168-acre portion of the parcel in order to begin habitat management efforts for the recovery of native ecosystems and endangered species.  Most of the portion withdrawn is comprised of remnant subalpine shrubland, much of it in the Conservation Zone, and not suitable for grazing.  The Division estimates that the portion withdrawn included only 10% of the leased lands suitable for grazing.  While the Division expects to withdraw additional portions over the next seven years that remain on the lease, those withdrawals will be incremental and are expected to provide for some level of grazing over time.             

Continued Public Engagement

Staff have been contacted recently by constituents wishing to support this initiative and seeking reassurance of the state’s commitment to the vision and goals of the Kamehamenui acquisition set forth in the Board’s approval of May 8, 2020.  The division remains committed to the project’s goals and objectives.  We encourage constituents to continue to engage with the Division in its planning process in order to be sure that all comments are received and incorporated into the draft management plan.