STAR-BULLETIN / AUGUST 2004
The National Audubon Society will be pulling out of Oahu's Waimea Valley after more than three years, leaving its future in the hands of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, its owner. Here, a peacock wanders the grounds of the Waimea Valley Audubon Center.
Audubon will depart Waimea Valley
The national nature group leaves OHA, the new owner, to find a park operator
After operating Oahu's Waimea Valley for more than three years, the National Audubon Society is pulling out, leaving the valley's future in the hands of its new owner, the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
OHA "actually was surprised" by the national conservation group's decision last week, OHA Administrator Clyde Namu'o said.
John Flicker, Audubon's national president, said the group could not agree to OHA requirements that included hiring and firing authority over the park's director, an Audubon-paid position.
Namu'o credited Audubon with transforming the 1,875-acre ahupuaa from a privately owned adventure park with trams, mountain biking and cliff divers into a more subdued attraction that welcomed locals, schoolchildren and visitors.
"Given the limitations of financial resources and lack of stability, Audubon has done a wonderful job in terms of keeping the place going," he said.
The valley houses 36 botanical gardens, with about 6,000 rare species of plants, and numerous Hawaiian archeological sites. Its future has been up in the air since 2002, when the city condemned it, hoping to save it from development. A 2006 settlement involved the city, state, Army, OHA and private donors paying former owner Christian Wolffer $14 million for the property he had sought to sell for $25 million.
Audubon Society and OHA representatives praised each other's organizations and concern for the historic valley but said they could not agree on a long-term way to run it together.
"What that valley needs is some stability," said Diana King, Audubon's interim director of the park.
"OHA is the owner, and OHA wants good things for Waimea Valley," King said. Staff will be kept on until OHA picks a new operator, she said.
Because Audubon has concluded it cannot manage the park on OHA's terms, King said, "we need to think forward to what we can do, to make everybody's concerns at Waimea be addressed and everybody's dreams to be realized."
Audubon has run Waimea Valley since mid-2003, but on a month-to-month basis with a shoestring staff, said King.
With the transfer of title for the land to OHA completed in mid-2006, OHA and Audubon "spent the last three to four months hammering out details on a long-term lease," Namu'o said.
OHA agreed to lease the land to Audubon at no cost and, in a separate grant agreement, to pay Audubon $1 million a year of Waimea Valley's operating expense, he said.
Income from entrance fees and programs falls about $500,000 a year short of the $2 million operating budget, and significant facility improvements are needed, Namu'o and King agreed.
But Audubon did not think OHA's offer would work for an organization that runs dozens of other nature centers around the country under its own governance. In addition to financial reporting required because OHA is a state agency, OHA wanted a significant hand in park decisions, particularly regarding Hawaiian cultural issues, King said.
Audubon will continue to run Waimea Valley for up to a year as OHA decides how it will proceed. Options include OHA hiring a third party to run the park, forming a nonprofit company to run the park itself, or a combination of those choices, Namu'o said.