Sunday, April 3, 2005


Natural resources too
important to be neglected


The Department of Land and Natural Resources and its director have come under fire.

IF state lawmakers order an , it would be the first time the agency as a whole would face top-to-bottom examination.

Various divisions and operations have undergone reviews over the years, an indication of problems in the department. But as with many branches of government, the department's functions have been limited by inadequate funding while taxpayers and political leaders demand more be done with fewer dollars.

Hawaii's natural resources are at the core of the state's economic stability. Just as the state counts on tourism for revenue, so does tourism depend on the environment to attract visitors. Moreover, deterioration of resources harms quality of life in the islands.

If all an audit produces is a slew of recommendations in a report that gathers dust on a shelf, it would be a waste of time and effort. The department should be given financial resources equal to its important mission.

Although it gets revenue from various fees and the federal government, general fund allocations have not increased substantially. Meanwhile, the agency has huge responsibilities, overseeing myriad duties from searching for snakes and issuing camping permits to managing about 2 million acres of conservation land -- about a quarter of the land in Hawaii -- and hundreds of miles of coastal areas. It is charged with protecting native ecosystems, streams and endangered plants and wildlife. It directs recreation, forestry, historic preservation, aquaculture, harbors, boating and hunting, among scores of other matters.

Conservation groups along with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and other Hawaiian organizations displeased with the department have called for the audit, saying the agency and its director, Peter Young, are mismanaging the unit.

OHA's concern focuses on the department's lag in cataloguing ceded lands from which OHA derives part of its income, absence of consultation on decisions involving ceded lands and the lack of a Burial Sites Program manager. Staffing elsewhere in the department also is a point of concern. More than 150 positions in the department have been left vacant, hampering the agency's functions. Young blames worker shortages on the Legislature's cut of 87 positions last year and on hiring freezes instituted by both Governor Lingle and her predecessor, Ben Cayetano.

Young, whose background is in the real estate industry, has often been a target for criticism, more so after a top administrator of the state Water Commission resigned in February when he insisted she support legislation to dismantle the commission. Lingle's appointment of an executive of a pro-development lobbying group as a department deputy director also had fueled concern.

Whether the department's predicament is of Young's making, the agency might benefit from an audit. A review could help guide the department to improve operations. It could also push legislators and the administration toward adequate funding.

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