All can unite in campaign to save Hawaii
By Kevan Blanche
Warm tropical waters, swaying palms, long stretches of fine sandy beach — it is the image of Hawai'i the world over — the source of its universal appeal, as well as the seed of its own demise. Like any of the world's true geographic gems, in modern times Hawai'i has always worked to strike a balance between man and nature — between development and preservation.
To be certain, it is not an easy balance to strike. How do you manage a modern, tourist-based economy without importing hundreds of thousands of tourists every year? Yet at the same time how do you preserve the natural qualities and bohemian lifestyle of the Islands while managing such overwhelming numbers of individuals?
Ordinarily a person such as myself could be counted on to be squarely in the private-property-rights group — if you buy it, you should be able to do with it what you like, and that includes development. But the beauty of our federal system, and of local control, is its adaptability — what is right for metropolitan New York or Los Angeles may not be right for rural Hawai'i — or any other community. Different times and different circumstances call for different approaches to development, and nowhere in America is this perhaps more obviously the case than on O'ahu.
Up until recent years Hawai'i seemed to have made a pact with itself — to allow Honolulu to grow and develop into the high-rise, fast-paced economic hub of the Islands, while working to strike a decidedly less urban balance outside the vicinity of Waikiki. It was a balance that, with some exceptions, worked. Tourists could find all the comforts and distractions of a modern American city while knowing in the back of their minds that the quiet Hawai'i of yesterday existed amidst the crashing surf of O'ahu's fabled North Shore or the serene verdant valleys of its western tip.
But with each passing year, and each flawless photograph, Hawai'i's popularity has continued to grow. And with each new condominium, hotel or resort, less and less of what makes Hawai'i the places of our dreams can be found. In short, we are slowly loving Hawai'i to death.
As a perfect example, consider the changes now facing O'ahu's North Shore. Sleepy country towns like Hale'iwa, once populated by locals and revered by wave-worshipping surfers, have begun to feel the creep of Waikiki, and plans are on the drawing board that could suburbanize or even urbanize the North Shore forever. Among the most notable are plans to dramatically expand the aged Turtle Bay Resort.
The plans for Turtle Bay's expansion, however, are truly immense — purportedly some 3,500 additional new guest rooms and units along the pristine shores renown for their rugged surf and natural splendor. When occupied by even a fraction of its total capacity, the resort would be a bustling throng of thousands of people.
And thousands of people will expect an infrastructure capable of supporting them. More cars will require bigger roads and more parking, more mouths will require more restaurants and snack shops, and more tourists looking for that perfect something will need more and more retail options. In short, this single expansion could dramatically alter O'ahu's North Shore forever.
Developers will argue that hotels and resorts are the lifeblood of Hawai'i's economy and that, far from habitat wreckers, they are merely entrepreneurs responding to a demand. They're right in part. But it is also clear that the demand for Hawai'i will never cease.
To view it in purely economic terms: to increase quantity is to sacrifice quality. When the quality of a Hawaiian visit has been sufficiently diminished, quality visitors will simply move on — leaving the Islands with an unattractive and overdeveloped infrastructure, but without the quality tourists it was built to facilitate, or the natural beauty that attracted them in the first place.
It would be a mistake, however, to paint this struggle or any of the state's development woes as simply a fight between corporations and preservationists or tourists and residents. As much as anything else, it is a fight against complacency.
Hawai'i's greatest defense is her people. People willing to organize, raise money and fight to preserve the land, communities and lifestyle they love.
Ironically, perhaps, one great source of help for locals could be the very tourists who drive the demand itself. Indeed, it was during a chance encounter with a passionate local resident while dining at North Shore eatery Hale'iwa Joe's that my own tourist eyes were opened.
In educating tourists about the fight to preserve what they have come so far to see, and enlisting their financial support, residents have the ability to play on equal terms with many developers.
Land trusts and other organizations can also form political action committees to lobby state and federal legislators to help preserve these delicate areas where appropriate, and enact meaningful and comprehensive planning that will ensure sustainable tourism. Organizations such as the North Shore Community Land Trust and the Defend Oahu Coalition are working to do just that.
As always, the fight over Hawai'i's past continues to simmer, but the past cannot be changed — only the future. Only in unity and strength can Hawai'i's people shape their future, and any failure to recognize the urgency of the situation could lead Hawaiians of all backgrounds to lose their Islands forever.
Kevan Blanche is a California attorney, writer and campaign consultant.