Molokai Ranch: Cooperation can bring rebirth
Instead of bemoaning the closing of Molokai Ranch, why not seize the event as a golden opportunity? Why not have the state or, alternatively, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs purchase the ranch and all its assets? I don't know the current value of the ranch, but we do know the 1990 purchase price: $50 million. Maybe the price is higher now; maybe lower, but that is for the appraisers to determine.
What happens once the land is purchased? We don't want a state agency or even the OHA central office based in Honolulu managing the operation. What we do want is to provide for community-based economic development with the people of Molokai managing the various endeavors.
Let me provide some potential examples of what might be possible in order to start the discussion going, but the real decisions would have to be up to the people of Molokai.
» Eco-tourism. Molokai could establish and manage an eco-tourism endeavor that utilizes the intimate knowledge that so many residents have of their island. There could be backcountry explorations that respect both native values and natural resources. There could also be opportunities for eco-minded visitors to work on reviving the historic fish ponds. The existing hotels could be managed as cooperative endeavors where visitors interested in exploring the real Molokai could reside. There might even be a limited number of bed and breakfast residences where island families could host visitors.
People worldwide are seeking truly local experiences, including opportunities to work on worthwhile indigenous projects that enrich their lives without damaging the environment. For the people of Molokai, eco-tourism is a natural.
» Environmentally friendly ranching. There is an increasing demand for range-fed beef both by restaurants and consumers. One just has to look at the line at the Saturday morning farmers market at Kapiolani Community College for evidence of this demand. This is an expanding niche market that a Molokai economic community development ranching subsidiary could serve. Perhaps going beyond cattle, range-fed buffalos might be worth pursuing.
» Organic crops. There is a growing demand for organically grown fruits and vegetables. Whether Molokai farmers are in a position to take advantage of this is worth exploring. There are numerous questions that need to be examined, including availability of water and transport of crops to market.
» Energy self-sufficiency. Molokai can become a leader in moving toward energy self-sufficiency, including the possibility of photovoltaic cells on almost every rooftop, or perhaps a 10- or 15- or 20-acre field devoted to producing electrical energy via photovoltaic units. Harnessing the Molokai winds to produce electric power might be another worthwhile endeavor. Again, research is needed.
This list could go on and on. The major point, of purchasing Molokai Ranch, however, is not this economic activity or that one, but rather empowering of the people of Molokai to take control of their island and their own economic future. The mechanisms would need to be worked out. For instance, would there be six or eight separate community-based economic entities? Would there be one coordinating body? What would the relationship be between the central body and the subsidiary corporate bodies? Would the Molokai entities be expected to provide a return to the state or OHA, which originally purchased the ranch?
All these details can be worked out. The critical point is that community-based economic development allows the people to take control of their future while unleashing their creative talents and willingness to work on projects they care about. Let's transform this seeming tragedy into a magnificent blessing for the people of Molokai and, in fact, for all of us.
The first essential step, though not sufficient in itself, is for the state of Hawaii to purchase Molokai Ranch, including all of its lands and other assets.
Tom Dinell is an emeritus professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, a fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners and a planning consultant.