The policies, which still face final approval by the Board of Land and Natural Resources, have been a long time coming in part because it's been a full-time battle to create and fund the 19 reserves, said Betsy Harrison Gagne, executive secretary of the commission that oversees the 110,000-acre system.
But commissioners believe it is important to draft policies now because growing demands on the reserves are threatening to destroy what the lands were set aside to preserve, Gagne said.
"It's a chance to get some order in the chaos, to deal with some of these issues before they mushroom into an even bigger problem and the forest as we know it is gone."
The policies call for controlling, regulating or prohibiting public access to reduce human impact on sensitive natural resources.
As a result, special use permits will be required to collect items in the reserves for scientific or cultural use, lead educational trips or offer commercial activities.
They also propose reducing alien plants and game animals to the lowest possible levels.
"We need to re-educate people that there are some spots that are simply off-limits to everybody," Gagne said. "We have to learn to say no. We can't be all things to everyone all the time, exactly the way they want it. We need to get that message across."
Mike Hatfield, commission chairman, said it took nearly two years to complete the policies.
The commission's first "hard-nosed" draft was toned down considerably during a review by the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife, which manages the system, he said.
"It's been a long, drawn-out process. Every step of the way we've run into problems."
Some of the stickiest issues have been dealing with demands for hunting, ecotourism and native gathering on the lands, he said.
The commission was forced to balance the rights and desires of those who want to use the pristine areas with its legal mandate to "protect these unique ecosystems for perpetuity."
Hunting will be encouraged in the reserves to help reduce animal numbers, and Gagne said she hopes the other islands will adopt a team approach like that used on Oahu, where land managers call in hunters to remove animals when they spot damage in the reserves.
But on the Big Island and elsewhere, Hatfield said, "pig hunting is a big issue because a lot of natural area reserves need to have pigs eradicated, and hunters don't like the 'e' word."
The policies do allow native Hawaiians to exercise their legal gathering rights, as well as visit and use historic and religious sites in the reserves. But with the rights come responsibilities, Gagne said.
She hopes to expand the state's cooperation with Hawaiian groups dedicated to teaching people wise use of the resources.
"In the good old days of pre-haole contact, people had very definite limits on where they could go," she said. "I'd like to see more information and education on how Hawaiians handled these issues and also take another look at the kapu system."
Hatfield said he is satisfied that the proposed policies offer "a clear set of directions" to help state land managers make decisions and set funding priorities.
But the policies must be supported by "rules with some teeth" and an enforcement plan, a process sure to generate controversy, he said.
The panel also is trying to meet its legal mandate of identifying areas that should be added to the system, another effort likely to be opposed by those using public lands for grazing, water diversion and other private purposes.
"I just hope the commission stays strong," said Hatfield, whose term ends this month. Panel members are appointed by the governor.
Gagne said she hasn't gotten any "raging opposition" to the draft management policies, but expects some fireworks during public hearings that will deal with commercial uses of public lands and changes to the rules governing the reserves.
Most of the comments Gagne did receive came from Sam Gon, ecologist with the Nature Conservancy.
Gon said he generally supports the limited access policy, saying Kaena Point offers a good example of how native ecosystems can recover when access to a reserve is restricted. Hikers can still walk in, but vehicles that were destroying the fragile dunes have been prohibited.