Land department overhaul would be beneficial
Hawaii's natural resources are threatened by lack of enforcement officers and leadership, according to an audit.
POLITICAL, tourism and business leaders often assert that the state's natural resources deserve the utmost protection because they are the foundation for Hawaii's livelihood and economy.
Yet safeguarding the state's oceans, land and fresh water -- and the plants and animals they sustain -- takes a subordinate position when it comes to funding.
This is evident in a report by state Auditor Marion Higa that points out how the enforcement division of the Department of Land and Natural Resources is so short of officers it cannot possibly carry out the laws designed to shield Hawaii's coastlines, reefs, forests, streams and mountains from harm.
Moreover, piling on extraneous duties over the years has further stretched the division's workforce to the point where it can no longer meet its obligations fully.
An overhaul of the conservation and enforcement division -- if not the entire department -- might be needed to eliminate assignments unrelated to the agency's primary purpose and to allow it to streamline operations and focus on its important role.
The critical audit isn't the first for the sprawling department that consists of dozens of branches, commissions and boards that manage a range of services and responsibilities, from allocating water resources for large housing developments to issuing licenses for catfishing.
Though audits by their nature find fault, the review of the division showed widespread breaches primarily due to staff shortages, haphazard strategies, outdated and mismanaged equipment, uneven worker performance tied to deficient accountability and assignment of unrelated work.
An example of the last is requiring enforcement officers to provide security for cruise ships at Maui and the Big Island harbors, paying them at overtime rates. While this did not divert them from regular work, it increased expenses. In addition, because the officers worked on their days off, they weren't at their best when doing either their usual work or the ship security checks. More to the point, the security assignments have little to do with conservation of natural resources.
Similarly, the department, at the request of the lieutenant governor, had conservation officers patrolling parks and harbors to deter teenagers from drinking and using drugs in a program called Operation Safe Summer. Granted, parks and harbors are part of the department's kuleana, but the division's job is to enforce conservation laws, not those normally the task of police officers.
Meanwhile, the division's fundamental work has languished. The lack of adequate staff being common knowledge allows scofflaws to exploit and damage natural areas. As a result, the audit says, illegal dirt bikes scar the Kaena Point refuge and Waimea Canyon Park, fishers drag nets over coral reefs, saltwater fish collectors and dealers capture rare species and plants are taken from reserves with no fear of punishment.