[ OUR OPINION ]
State parks finally
may get attention
OUTDOOR enthusiasts and residents who have complained for years about the wretched conditions at state parks probably cheered as enthusiastically as tourism folks did when Gov. Lingle's aide promised that the administration will seek funding to fix them up.
The governor is proposing bonding authority to raise funds to restore Hawaii's neglected parks and natural areas.
Though the loud voice of complaint came from the state's No. 1 industry, everyone will benefit from the park improvement effort -- and it's about time.
Marsha Wienert, Lingle's tourism czar, drew lusty applause at the Kauai Visitors Bureau annual meeting when she announced that the governor will push the state Legislature next year to approve bonding authority to finance as much as $20 million to restore Hawaii's parks, and that Lingle will ask for twice as much the following year.
Making the proclamation on Kauai was good strategy since parks there appear to have suffered severe neglect as the state struggled to make ends meet during lean years. Unlike Maui, which boasts Haleakala National Park, and the Big Island, with Hawaii Volcanoes and Puuhonua O Honaunau Historic Park, Kauai has no national facilities, which are popular draws for visitors.
The Garden Island hosts more than half of the 26,000 acres of state park lands but over the years received no more than 18 percent of the parks' meager operating budgets. The lack of money allowed facilities on Kauai and elsewhere to fall into disrepair; public restrooms, shelters, hiking trails, roads and parking lots all suffered.
Tourism-dependent businesses worried since the majority of park users across the state are visitors, who complained about litter and deteriorated facilities. The industry, recognizing its huge stake in Hawaii's natural areas, has increasingly brought attention to the problems.
Wienert, however, also brought a sobering note for residents. The governor's initiative will include user fees, a proposal likely to raise concern since taxpayers have long enjoyed free use of public lands. The state's imposition of entrance fees at Diamond Head and the city's charges at Hanauma Bay drew protests before they were adjusted for residents. The idea also probably will face opposition from Hawaiian advocates since fees may intrude on gathering and access rights.
If fees are put into place, lawmakers and the governor should make sure that the tourism industry -- as the primary beneficiary -- pays its fair share and that no fees are so high as to turn away people from beaches and mountains.
The funding plan is a vast improvement over current budget practices for parks. The only mechanism that allows parks to gain a direct share of tourism revenues is a small portion from hotel tax collections that are funneled through the Hawaii Tourism Authority. It remains to be seen how much of a burden bond payments will place on the state's purse and how the money raised will be targeted.
It is unfortunate that years of neglect have taken such a tremendous toll and that the value of the Hawaii's natural areas had to be framed in economic terms to get due attention. Still, the plan is worthy if it will restore parks for all to enjoy.