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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 27, 2009

'Renaissance' plan for Hawaii parks shifts into low-budget gear


By Diana Leone
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Anette Ingand, left, and Anne Foss, both of Oslo, Norway, pay their way into Diamond Head State Monument. Parks officials are moving ahead with plans to charge fees to nonresidents for entry to other high-traffic state parks.

REBECCA BREYER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Troy Martin of Martin Steel, operating a 20-ton crane, was one of several Kaua'i residents who helped repair a bridge and road at Polihale State Park this year. Parks officials hope the effort there will serve as a template elsewhere.

Bruce Pleas photo

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When DLNR Director Laura Thielen asked the state Legislature for $240 million in bond money to fix Hawai'i's aging state parks and harbors, she said some parks would have to close without the new money.

In a session characterized by cost-cutting, lawmakers said "no" to the bond issues and cut the Department of Land and Natural Resources' operating budget by more than 20 percent.

Thielen isn't mourning the failure of her Recreational Renaissance proposal, and she isn't ready to announce the closure of any parks. Instead she's busy preparing to launch Plan B next month. It will likely include:

  • Charging nonresidents a fee to enter a few high-traffic parks and increasing slip fees at small boat harbors;

  • Partnering with volunteer community groups to fix problems at little or no cost, such as in the citizen-led repair of a bridge at Polihale State Park on Kaua'i; and

  • Focusing staff attention on urgent and high-profile issues, stretching the operations budget through a super-lean budget year.

    "Basically, in my opinion, Plan B is going to be the Recreational Renaissance plan, less what we didn't get from the Legislature," said Ed Underwood, administrator of DLNR's Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation.

    "We will be moving forward with repair and upgrades" of harbor facilities that can be done with money already in hand and by using staff and volunteers to do labor where possible, Underwood said.

    Clearly, when money is tight, the work of volunteers is a resource.

    On Kaua'i, a band of volunteers with heavy equipment repaired a flood-damaged access road and bridge to reopen Polihale State Park last month. Another group of citizens stands ready to rebuild a deteriorated loading dock at Kikiaola Harbor.

    The price tag for the Kikiaola loading dock job on the Recreational Renaissance list was $660,000. Kaua'i boating administrator Joe Borden said he's hoping he can get the materials for $20,000 or less and use the "menehune" labor of the Kikiaola Boat Club to get it done.

    On O'ahu's Sand Island, volunteers will begin next month to create dirt tracks for off-road vehicles, from bicycles to motorbikes to all-terrain vehicles.

    'THE BIG BOOGEYMAN'

    The second part of DLNR's plan likely will be to charge nonresidents $1 to $5 to enter eight popular parks.

    The fees drew a backlash from citizens in testimony before the Legislature about the plan.

    Assistant Parks Administrator Curt Cottrell calls fear of fees "the big boogeyman" in the public's mind, especially given Hawai'i's tradition of access to public lands.

    But he points out two things: The department isn't planning to charge Hawai'i residents, and charging a fee hasn't slowed the flow of visitors at Diamond Head.

    Diamond Head, a state monument, started charging $1 a head to all walk-in visitors in 2000, added a $5 car fee in 2003 and offers annual passes.

    From 2003 to 2008 Diamond Head's annual fee income rose from $773,000 to $800,000. In March of this year, amid the down economy, the monument's gate was $90,000, the biggest single month since starting fees, Cottrell said.

    The money is used to maintain the monument.

    At Diamond Head, "we always have toilet paper and bathrooms work, and it's clean and there are lights in the (formerly dark) tunnel," Cottrell said.

    The places under consideration for access fees for nonresident users are: the Nu'uanu Pali wayside park and Ka Iwi scenic shoreline on O'ahu; Koke'e/Waimea parks and Ha'ena Beach on Kaua'i; Makena Beach and 'Iao State Park on Maui; and Kekaha Kai and 'Akaka Falls parks on the Big Island.

    There was significant objection from the Hawai'i Kai Neighborhood Board to a fee at the Ka Iwi shoreline and from the Ha'ena community about a fee there, unless all the money stays in Ha'ena.

    NO GUARANTEES

    Those objections were heard as the DLNR toured the state, seeking feedback on the Recreational Renaissance. The department is still considering where, and how, to seek entrance fees.

    The fees would help cover some of the money trimmed from the DLNR operating budget, which was $111.6 million in fiscal 2009, including $33 million in general fund money.

    Even with a promising Plan B in the works, DLNR officials aren't able to say that no parks will be closed due to the budget cuts.

    "We don't want to," Cottrell said, "because we want to provide that public service. In this bad economy, the local population needs our parks. Its an inexpensive place to take your family. We don't want people out of work to try to go to a state park and it's closed."

    On Memorial Day weekend, camping at Sand Island State Recreation Area was sold out, Cottrell said.

    In this budget crisis, there probably won't be new interpretive signs at state parks, Cottrell said. "But we can do some paint jobs, make it a little nicer, spruce them up a bit."