HILO — They say they are Native Hawaiian beneficiaries looking after the aina.
But the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands says they are trespassing and that their unauthorized structure next to the Maunakea Access Road has to go.
“We have to be concerned about liability and what liability could mean for the trust,” said William Aila, DHHL deputy chairman.
The structure, known as Hale o Kuhio, was put in place on DHHL land on Prince Kuhio Day, March 26, by about two dozen people associated with a group called the Beneficiaries Trust Council. Some identified themselves as “Kanaka Rangers.”
They say they are trying to bring attention to the lengthy DHHL beneficiary wait list as well as promote self-sufficiency and self-determination. DHHL holds 56,000 acres in the area in trust, a portion of which is designated for pasture or homestead leases. Most of the land is set aside for forest and cultural uses for beneficiaries.
“We shouldn’t be waiting when lands should be distributed,” said Kepa Kaeo, of the BTC, regarding the homestead and pasture lands in the area.
At first, participants say they would ask vehicles to stop to keep track of where they were going and provide safety tips for those ascending Maunakea. They say they were doing that to collect data on traffic crossing DHHL lands, and continue to do so, but are no longer encouraging vehicles to pull over.
“Our data collection is a must because everyone needs management numbers,” Kaeo said.
Aila said DHHL is willing to dialogue with the group, but first they need to come into compliance.
That’s why cease and desist letters were issued in September. So far, the warnings have been ignored.
“I can say they are not in compliance,” Aila said. “We are giving them more time to remove the structure.”
Additional warnings have been posted on the structure, which have been painted over, he said.
Aila said the original structure was removed by a homesteader whom he described as being its owner. A slightly larger structure was then erected to replace it.
As for whether the participants could face penalties, he said that would be up to the Hawaiian Homes Commission.
Kaeo said he can’t remove the structure because he said it belongs to the people who donated funds to build it.
DHHL completed a plan for its Maunakea lands called the Aina Mauna Legacy Program in 2009. The lands hug the mountain mostly along Mana Road.
It identified 1,000 acres to be initially set aside for rural homestead development near Daniel K. Inouye Highway, more than 4,000 acres for pastureland, and most of the remaining land for forestry, conservation and gorse control.
Aila said there are two existing pasture leases.
No progress has been made in opening up homesteads, which could accommodate 100 to 200 leases, according to the plan. Aila said infrastructure costs remain a challenge, and there are other lands that are more feasible for homesteads.
“Everything boils down to resources,” he said.
DHHL is currently planning to establish sustainable agricultural lots in Honomu.
State Sen. Kai Kahele said he understands the frustration with the beneficiary wait list. His father, the late Sen. Gil Kahele, was on the wait list at the time of his death.
“We’re seeing where people basically, or organizations … take the land out of frustration,” he said.
Kahele, D-Hilo, noted DHHL is a complex state organization, which also has some federal oversight, and often lacks financial resources.
The U.S. Congress passed the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, spearheaded by Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole, in 1920. It was signed into law the following year.
There are about 27,000 applicants on the homestead wait list statewide, Aila said.
“To put people on the land, we need to become self-sustaining,” Kahele said. “We need to utilize our land assets to generate income so we don’t need to depend on the state’s general fund.”
Email Tom Callis at firstname.lastname@example.org.