Federal review merits fast track


POSTED: Friday, August 07, 2009

The state agency assigned to protect historic Hawaiian sites ran into criticism two years ago for being understaffed and short on archaeological expertise. Despite new leadership, the agency remains under the microscope of preservation proponents. The National Park Service should complete a report soon on whether it is complying with federal requirements.

Melanie Chinen resigned under pressure in 2007 as administrator of the Department of Land and Resources' Historic Preservation Division following criticism of her management as heavy-handed, driving away 19 qualified employees. The division also was accused of neglecting to maintain reports and an inventory of historic sites. Chinen's credentials also had been questioned, as previous administrators had advanced degrees in one of the three fields supervised — archaeology, architecture and history/culture.

Chinen was replaced last year by Puaalaokalani Aiu, who holds a doctorate in communications, had been an analyst in the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and had been involved in Hawaiian preservation efforts and burial issues. Named at the same time as head of archaeology and historic preservation was Nancy McMahon, an archaeologist for the agency for 20 years. McMahon says the division remains understaffed.

However, U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie said in a letter to the National Park Service that “;many problems persist,”; expressing concern “;that our cultural and historical resources are not being adequately protected.”; He wrote that the agency has been unable to perform its “;functions in a timely manner,”; causing “;a wide variety of federal projects”; from going forward.

The agency receives $500,000 from the federal government to implement the National Preservation Act, but Thomas Dye, former president of the Society for Hawaiian Archaeology, said those funds would be at risk if it fails to meet federal requirements.

Aiu appears now to be facing some of the same criticism that was directed at Chinen. Kaleo Paik, a former division cultural specialist, criticized Aiu's reaction to a bulldozed heiau in Hawaii Kai in June, saying Aiu remarked to her, “;You saw a pile of stones and you thought that was significant?”;

“;We didn't actually damage anything that was significant,”; Joe Brown of Hale Alii Development, which is constructing a condominium building at the site, told KITV. He said crews mistakenly encroached into a buffer zone around a conservation area but damaged no petroglyphs.

State Sen. Clayton Hee, who visited the site this week, said he plans to launch an investigation into the division as chairman of the Senate Committee on Water, Land, Agriculture and Hawaiian Affairs. That could be unnecessary if the National Park Service issues its report in a timely manner, which it should. If the problems jeopardize various construction projects from going ahead, the report must stoke action for quick remedies.