By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Lyle Otsuka, a Molokai Ranch officer shows the rodeo
grounds at Molokai Ranch. Otsuka says that vandalism
on Molokai is, "unfortunate."


Finding the road
to recovery

Molokai Ranch sits at crossroad
of economic hope and growing mistrust

By Gary T. Kubota

MAUNALOA, Molokai -- Former cowboy William Starkey sometimes misses the crackling campfire and the quiet nights under a thousand stars.

But the life of a cowboy is a young man's game, Starkey says, and doesn't hold much of a future. At age 52, after surviving a horse falling on him, Starkey now drives a company truck, hauling dirt from Maunaloa, where the 100-year-old ranch is forging a new identity, expanding from heifers to hotel rooms.

"I want to be a part of the new things happening out there. I know there's people who oppose it, but I just hope the ranch provides job security," said Starkey, a native Hawaiian and father of three.

Many residents believe the economic future of depressed Molokai hinges on the ranch's latest multimillion-dollar venture in tourism and housing at Maunaloa.

But the ranch faces legal challenges and deepening mistrust from Hawaiian groups battling for water and access to hunting and fishing areas -- opposition that could jeopardize the projects.

The state Land Use Commission was to hold a hearing today to determine whether the ranch may continue building vacation campgrounds on agricultural land near Maunaloa.

"Molokai Ranch is the main stimulus on that island for jobs," Gov. Ben Cayetano said recently.

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
It's a slow Molokai day at the post office in Maunaloa.
There are no shopping centers or traffic lights on Molokai.
A car's honk usually means, "hello."

"I think Molokai Ranch probably made a few mistakes.... I think there should be a dialogue between Molokai Ranch and native Hawaiian groups on how they can solve these kinds of things. This dialogue is very important. There has to be some good will."

Last year, about 14.8 percent of the 6,700 residents on Molokai were unemployed, compared with 6.4 percent statewide. About 29.5 percent of Molokai households received food stamps.

On an island where more than half the population is native Hawaiian, many residents also support themselves by hunting, fishing or farming -- and share their food with relatives and neighbors.

There are no shopping centers or traffic lights. A car honk usually means "hello."

Along the main street in the harbor town of Kaunakakai, several buildings have vacancies, including one that used to house the town's only diner, the Midnite Inn.

As Starkey travels from Kaunakakai west toward the former pineapple town of Maunaloa, a vast savanna unfolds, most of it belonging to the 53,600-acre ranch, which owns a third of Molokai.

Vandalism and downsizing

On the 17-mile route are failed businesses, flagging enterprises, and the scenes of unsolved acts of major vandalism against the ranch:

Along the coast in near-shore waters, scores of semicircle rock walls -- remnants of native fish ponds -- emerge at low tide. They are like a Hawaiian Stonehenge holding a mystery, especially to state agencies who have spent thousands of dollars on studies and yielded not one profitable pond.

Range-grass covers most of the former pineapple fields in west Molokai. The island has faced severe unemployment since the early 1970s, when U.S. corporations moved their pineapple operations to foreign countries.

At the foot of a former sand dune stands Kaluakoi Resorts, once the hope for tourism on Molokai. The resort employs about 30 percent less than the 250 workers it did in the 1980s.

Several farms that occupied former pineapple land are shrinking their operations or leaving.

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Molokai Ranch is selling homes in Maunaloa for as little as
$140,000. This model sells for about $200,000.

Seed-growing farms Cargill Inc. and Hawaiian Research are thinking about leaving or reducing their business on Molokai in light of a state Supreme Court decision banning third-party leases on Hawaiian homestead land.

Truck farmer Larry Jefts, who once sold about 80 percent of the watermelon in the state, has cut his labor force in half to 50, partially because of the lack of water and rising freight cost, and has moved part of his operation to Oahu.

In the last 3-1/2 years, the ranch has been the victim of vandalism.

Fences were cut and animals killed at the ranch's wildlife safari park in 1994, its renovated house at Kaupoa was burned in 1995, and vandals destroyed five miles of a water pipeline in 1996.

"It's unfortunate. The Molokai I grew up on didn't have those things," said Lyle Otsuka, the ranch's vice president and general manager of the lodge and recreation. Otsuka believes the Maunaloa developments will jump-start Molokai's tourism.

In addition to its cattle-raising and agricultural and industrial leasing businesses, its campsites and commercial project at Maunaloa is projected to add 300 jobs during a 15-year period.

Under the New Zealand-based Brierley Investments Ltd., the ranch's $32-million venture at Maunaloa includes the first fast-food chain to the island through KFC-Hawaii, a three-screen movie house and 62-room lodge.

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
A new general store is under construction in Maunaloa town.

Seaside of Maunaloa, vacation campsites are being built to offer activities including horse riding, mountain bike riding, kayaking and hiking.

The activities complement the ranch's 5,000-head cattle operation and a rodeo stadium, where visitors learn horse-riding techniques.

Campsite stirs controversy

Businesses say the ranch's campsite enterprise seems promising because it provides more than the usual golf at Kaluakoi and mule rides down to the Kalaupapa settlement.

Tauck Tours executive Elliott Higgins, whose company pulled out of Molokai in 1993, said the ranch's latest endeavor is stirring interest.

The endeavor, however, is also stirring protest.

Hawaiians say the ranch is limiting access to traditional hunting and fishing grounds near the vacation campgrounds.

Ranch officials say any Molokai resident who has a state hunting license may hunt on ranch land on assigned days.

But hunters say they have to wait days or weeks, at a time when their families need food now.

"I don't need that week wait," said hunter Joe Kalipi.

"I respect their side.

"It's not like I hold a grudge on them.

"But I feed my family and it's subsistence."

Tapping water resources

A Hawaiian group called "Pono" charges that the campsite tents -- with solar-powered ceiling fans, indoor showers and toilets on raised wooden platforms -- resemble hotel accommodations.

Ranch and county officials say state law allows camping on agricultural land that is marginal in productivity, such as those sites designated in the company's plan.

The ranch's proposal to drill a well at Kamiloloa also faces opposition before the state Commission on Water Resource Management.

Some native Hawaiians worry that by tapping the Kamiloloa source, the ranch could affect water sources serving their homesteads at Hoolehua and reduce stream flow in east Molokai.

Harold Edwards, the ranch's vice president of community development, said the campsites and water are "very critical to our long-range plans" if the ranch is to proceed with its investments.

Otsuka, who worked outside of Molokai for more than 20 years, said he'd like to see the island try to keep its young adults.

"The way you keep them is to offer them opportunity," Otsuka said.

Starkey said he hopes the development at Maunaloa will give his children the chance for good jobs: "To me, it's progress. So when progress comes, you got to go with the flow."

See also yesterday's installment:
Molokai Trail Blazin'
and Molokai Trail Talk

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