Size of park to balloon - Nature Conservancy to provide funds to complete purchase to double size of 229,000-acre Big Island park

By Dave Smith/
Hawaii Tribune-Herald


The hard part, the funding, is virtually complete. Soon the work on the ground - no small feat in itself - will begin.

The superintendent of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park said he plans to open up the park's newest property as soon as possible after the paperwork on the acquisition is completed.

The effort will be a fiscal as well as physical challenge. Although the 229,000 - acre Big Island park will increase in size by 50 percent, at least initially there will be no increase in its operating budget.

Congress recently paved the way for Hawaii Volcanoes' expansion through an $8.5 million appropriation toward the purchase of Kahuku Ranch. The funding, which received President Bush's signature Feb. 20, brought the amount earmarked for the purchase of most of the sprawling Ka'u ranch to about $16 million.

Although that is not enough to complete the purchase, the appropriation does allow for the addition to the park through a private - public partnership.

The Nature Conservancy has agreed to provide enough funds to complete the acquisition. The non - profit group would then be reimbursed by the federal government, likely in next year's budget.

Hawaii Volcanoes Superintendent Jim Martin said negotiations between the National Park Service and Damon Estate, the owner of Kahuku Ranch, have been completed.

Martin did not disclose the purchase price. However, the property has been appraised for about $22 million, and by law the government cannot spend more than that for the acquisition.

The 115,000 - acre Kahuku Ranch parcel contains native ecosystems as well as diverse archaeological and geological features.

Rob Schallenberger, Big Island conservation director for The Nature Conservancy, called the purchase "extremely significant." He said the biggest conservation effort in the history of the state involves an opportunity to protect some of the most pristine native forests found anywhere in the state.

"This is such a spectacular piece of land," he said. "It's a wonderful, intact functioning ecosystem."

Martin said he is keen on allowing the public onto its new acquisition at the first opportunity. However, to do so he will have to "stretch" existing Hawaii Volcanoes resources.

"The big problem is we're going to walk on that land with no new appropriations," he said.

Martin envisions opening up the land initially through some form of "open house," such as allowing visitors on a weekend to picnic or view more accessible areas.

"We really want to open it up as frequently as possible," he said.

He said one of the first priorities will be to have a ranger or other form of continuous park presence on the land within a year of the land acquisition.

But park officials face a severe logistical challenge, as while part of the ranch property abuts Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, that is at the extremely remote upper portion near the summit of Mauna Loa. The ranch's access road off Highway 11 near Hawaiian Ocean View Estates is at least a 40 - mile drive from the park's headquarters.

The property does contain several buildings including at least two homes which park personnel will be able to use to house park staff and programs. Martin said the homes are currently occupied.

Some of the first efforts will involve fencing around the most environmentally fragile areas to prevent further destruction from pigs and other feral animals such as mouflon sheep.

Martin said cattle would be kept on the land at least initially to prevent unchecked growth of grass that could increase the threat of wildfires.

He said the acquisition would link several parcels of conservation land in the area. He said talks will be initiated with those land owners, which include the state, Kamehameha Schools and The Nature Conservancy, about combining conservation efforts.

Martin said a regional trail at about the 6,000 - foot elevation of Mauna Loa is also a possibility.

Martin said public hearings will be held to allow the public to comment on the management of the new land.

Dave Smith can be reached at dsmith@hawaiitribune -


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