Auditor slams state conservation efforts
Mismanagement and a lack of resources could cost Hawaii its "fertile environment"
STATE conservation enforcement officers are spread thin, undertrained, underequipped and mismanaged, leaving Hawaii's natural resources susceptible to blatant "overuse and abuse," said state Auditor Marion Higa in a report released yesterday.
"If resources continue to be depleted at their current rate and conservation enforcement remains ineffective and inefficient, Hawaii's future generations will lose the enrichment of abundant wildlife, a fertile environment and a rich cultural heritage," said the audit, which reviewed the state Department of Land and Natural Resources' Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement. "The absence of enforcement coverage contributes, in part, to overuse and abuse of Hawaii's resources."
The 60-page report, compiled between May and December, said enforcement officers are often pulled from conservation patrols to work on crime prevention and marijuana eradication.
The enforcement division has a $7.5 million budget and employs 103 people. Its officers are responsible for 1.3 million acres, from the tops of mountains to the coastlines and three miles out to sea.
Though the division's staff is small -- and overstretched -- the audit noted that the state does not use its enforcement "workforce efficiently and therefore does not provide as much enforcement coverage as could be possible. Through improved work methods and better scheduling, available staff could provide more widespread coverage for longer periods each day."
Lawmakers and environmentalists said the audit confirmed their suspicions about the state of conservation enforcement in the islands and raised serious concerns about the well-being of Hawaii's environment. Many also said they hope the report will provide a road map for making improvements.
"The fundamental problem is that whatever new law we enact, it doesn't have a lot of credibility if we can't enforce it," said state Rep. Brian Schatz (D, Tantalus-Makiki), one of several legislators who pushed for the audit last year. "We have work to do. The first step to improving the division is admitting that it's not running at an optimal level."
DLNR Chairman Peter Young said the findings and recommendations in the audit "were not a surprise."
He said he is already working to solve some staffing and compliance issues, and will go to the state Legislature this year with an increased budget request.
"We are trying to expand our enforcement presence, maximize our exposure and be as efficient as possible," Young said. "We're taking aggressive steps to do our part. It's all of our responsibilities to take appropriate action, to deter inappropriate action and to have us work together."
Young declined to release details on his upcoming budget request but did say he would ask for $800,000 to hire private, uniformed security officers who would patrol 22 state parks during peak hours or when violations tend to occur. He said it is still unclear whether the officers would be able to issue citations.
Also in the request is about $1 million that would be granted to Hawaii environmental groups to provide education on the state's conservation laws.
Jeff Mikulina, executive director of the Sierra Club in Hawaii, said underfunding is a key part of the division's woes. But, he said, leadership is also an issue.
"What we really need is an environmental 911," he said, adding that enforcement officers should be better supervised and held to higher standards. "It's an awesome responsibility to be protecting our island's environment."
State Rep. Hermina Morita, chairwoman of the House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee, agreed, saying she wants the division to work on its "priorities for enforcement."
For example, she said, enforcement officers should be hunting out poachers or illegal loggers before looking for marijuana plants.
The audit notes that in addition to enforcement officers being "spread too thin," they are sent out into the field with analog radios, which encounter many "dead spots" with bad or no radio coverage.
Also, the report said, officers have four-wheel-drive trucks and access to boats but are not able to use all-terrain vehicles or dirt bikes to patrol hundreds of miles of shoreline and forest. And though officers are provided with handguns, they are not given shotguns or rifles while patrolling hunting areas.
While compiling information for the report, the auditor said, investigators saw a slew of residents breaking state conservation laws.
On a patrol with an enforcement officer at Kauai's Waimea Canyon State Park, officials saw extensive erosion caused by illegal dirt bikes. Also, the report said, they saw jet skis being used illegally in Hanalei Bay.
SAVING THE ENVIRONMENT
An audit released yesterday said the state's Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement does not have "the leadership necessary to provide for their effective and efficient enforcement" of environmental laws. Here are a few of the state auditor's recommendations:
>> Develop a strategic plan for the division along with "performance measure plans" to determine whether progress is being made.
>> Require branch chiefs and field supervisors to maintain frequent contact with enforcement officers during work shifts and make surprise visits to the field.
>> Periodically schedule field supervisors and enforcement officers to work late-evening and early-morning hours.
>> Revitalize the volunteer program.
>> Provide enforcement officers access to all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes to patrol otherwise inaccessible areas.
>> Develop a policy for the use of shotguns or rifles while patrolling hunting areas.