Compromise needed for Waimea Valley management


Source: January 2007 Ka Wai Ola o OHA Column

`Ano`ai kakou…  On September 21, 2006, the Trustees discussed whether OHA should sign a long term lease with the National Audubon Society to manage Waimea Valley.  I, along with Trustees Donald Cataluna and former Trustee Dante Carpenter, brought up several concerns regarding the Audubon’s management of the valley.

The Audubon’s mission is to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife, and their habitats for the benefit of humanity and the earth’s biological diversity.  Although they do excellent work in fulfilling their mission, they lack expertise in several key areas with regards to the proper management of Waimea Valley.

For example, the Audubon lacks the business expertise to commercially develop Waimea Falls Park’s existing restaurant complex and make it economically self-sufficient.  OHA has provided the Audubon with operating funds, but they still plan to ask OHA for capital improvement grants.  While the Trustees of OHA are strongly committed to the preservation of Waimea Valley, we also have the fiduciary responsibility to make sure that it doesn’t become a money pit.

The Audubon also lacks expertise in Hawaiian history, language, and cultural practices, which are crucial to the proper management of the valley.  Whoever manages the valley must also successfully involve the various community groups that fought to save the valley in the first place.  The valley will not prosper without their continued support.  At the writing of this article, the community is not comfortable with Audubon being in complete control of the valley.

I also have a serious concern with giving the Audubon a 30 year lease.  Who can say for certain where OHA will be in 10-years?  Now that the Democrats have taken control of Congress, federal recognition and nationhood for Native Hawaiians is imminent.  Will it be fair to the new Native Hawaiian governing entity to lock Waimea Valley into a long term lease?  We need to look at breaking the 30-year lease up into 10-year intervals, with a review of their performance at every five years.

The Audubon is also not negotiating in good faith.  In January of 2006, OHA was one of the five public and private groups that agreed to contribute money to buy Waimea Valley.  OHA contributed $2.9 million and advanced a total of $1 million for the National Audubon Society (which they would pay us back).  However, the Audubon later said that they would only pay the $1 million back if we gave them an acceptable (as determined by their board) long term lease to the valley. 

In order to save the plan to purchase the valley, OHA paid Audubon’s $1 million share, with a side agreement that they would pay us back after an “acceptable” long term lease was signed.  The Trustees were not included in these discussions.  I found out about it at our September 2006 board meeting.  So now, the Audubon is basically holding our $1 million hostage.

The Audubon is currently working from an extended June 30, 2006 interim lease, which may be extended again as OHA’s administration continues to work things out.  OHA’s new Land Division is preparing a new draft of the lease for review by Audubon.  Unfortunately, that draft isn’t ready yet and I haven’t been able to read it.  All of the Trustees need to read it before anyone at OHA signs it.  I am certainly looking forward to the Administrator’s update to the Trustees in the New Year.

With so many competing interests regarding Waimea Valley’s sacred culture sites, endangered species, its continued use as a park, and public access, a solution that will satisfy everyone will not be easy.  However, with a little patience, understanding, and cooperation, I am hoping that we can come to an agreement that will make the Audubon, OHA, and the residents of Waimea happy.  Otherwise, we should look at putting out a request for proposals (RFP) to see who else might be interested in managing this valley for OHA.  Have a prosperous and safe New Year!