Watersheds Messenger     Spring 2003     Vol. X, No. 1     PDF ISSUE


Trouble in Paradise: Livestock Grazing in Hawaii
By Patricia Tummons

Editor's note: The following article is abridged from a series of stories on livestock grazing that appeared in the September, October and November 2002 issues of Environment Hawaii. For copies of the complete series or to subscribe to Environment Hawaii, visit www.environment-hawaii.org.

When it comes to the running of bulls, the streets of mid­l9th century Honolulu could hold their own against those of Pamplona. "Pedestrians taxed their calorie and adrenaline reserves by jumping walls, rushing through gates and running desperately before furious bovines," historian Richard Greer has written.

Although it isn't clear exactly when cattle were first brought to Oahu, some accounts report that Don Francisco de Paula Marin, who eventually established a ranch in Waianae, was slaughtering beef in the first years of the l9th century. By 1816, the cattle were enough of a nuisance to cause people to fence their gardens and houses.

The creatures that plagued Honolulu were the descendants of cattle brought to Hawaii by Captain George Vancouver in visits to the islands in 1793 and 1794. Vancouver presented the livestock to King Kamehameha, from whom he extracted the promise that there would be no killing of the animals for at least 10 years.

By the 1830s, herds of wild cattle roamed the major islands, while private herds were amassed using animals from wild stock. The earliest agreements allowing pasture use of the king's lands are unrecorded. By the end of the decade, however, the king and other chiefs were regularly committing to paper the agreements struck with cattle owners allowing private herds to graze on their lands.

A study by Holly McEldowney in the early 1980s attempts to determine what Waimea must have looked like before the arrival of cattle. She describes it as a "gardened landscape" that, based on early descriptions, included "evergreen hills and extended plain diversified with thick wood, open pasture, low shrubbery and fruitful plantation." By the end of the 1840s, that landscape had been forever altered.

While most of the studies of the effect of cattle have focused on Hawaii Island, similar effects were seen on every island in the archipelago. By 1857, according to one estimate, the islands' cattle population, wild and domestic, numbered nearly 50,000, and was increasing at a rate of 30 percent a year.

The next few years saw the ascendancy of sugar across the archipelago - and with it, growing interest in the protection of forests as watersheds. But in those areas where sugar planters had no interest in either land or water, ranching was generally regarded as the next best use of the land.

A pattern of land use emerged that was unchallenged, for the most part, through the 20th century Sugar planters obtained the choice agricultural lands on each of the main islands and the rights to develop water for fluming or irrigation from windward mountain slopes. The rest went to the ranchers.

In 1905, the government of Hawaii began the process of setting aside forested areas of the islands as reserves, to be protected for their watershed value. By that time, hundreds of thousands of acres of the islands' forests had already been reduced to stands of dead and dying trees.

By what agency had the forested slopes of the islands been reduced to this? A century ago, when the ghosts of forests past were still so visible, those who were asking the question were almost all of one mind as to the answer: cattle.

Early Polynesian settlers had cleared lowland areas on their arrival, but upland areas were by and large untouched until the arrival of the first European ships. Destruction of native forests began then with a vengeance, in a process that continues to this day.

Far more insidious and lasting was the attack by the hooved creatures unknown in the islands before Western contact. Allowed free run of the hills and forests, wild cattle and goats were for much of the l9th century regarded as a source of ready revenue for the kingdom, requiring no care of investment.

Around the middle of the l9th century, alarms sounded from a variety of sources over the effects of cattle on Hawaii's lands and forests. In 1856, Abraham Fornander, editor of the Sandwich Islands' Monthly Magazine, argued that the very climate of Waimea had been altered by cattle, which had destroyed the "thick wood" that, as recently as 1825, had stretched across the North Hawaii plain.

An even direr warning was sounded by William Hillebrand, surgeon at Queen's Hospital and one of the pioneers in Hawaiian botany (his Nu'uanu estate later became Foster Gardens). "Of all the destroying influences man brings to bear upon nature," Hillebrand said in an address July 1856 to the Royal Hawaiian Agricultural Society, "cattle is the worst..."

Thirteen years ago, the Department of Land and Natural Resources launched a project that signaled a new seriousness of purpose to protect Hawaii's diminished forests. An exploding population in West Hawaii, concerns about loss of habitat for the islands' imperiled native species, and a desire to protect the mountain sources of replenishment for important aquifers ­ all combined to spur the DLNR to propose adding more than 15,000 acres to the Big Island forest reserves.

The initiative marked the first time since statehood that the government had contemplated a substantial addition to the forest reserve system, begun in 1903.

At the time of the 1989 push, William Paty, then chairman of the Board of Land and Natural Resources, described the protection of the lands - on the slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa - as "a pressing concern." The Land Board held a hearing on the proposal in December 1989, as the law required, and then voted its approval of the plan, with a few minor changes.

And so, 13 years after this initiative was launched, how much of the acreage has actually been added to the forest reserve? Not one square inch.

Cattle ranching reached its zenith in Hawaii in the mid­1950s by at least two measurements: the area occupied by ranches (about 1.2 million acres of public and private land) and the lease rents paid for use of public grazing lands (about $550,000). In 1962, one of the most controversial issues facing the young state was how to manage public lands.

Should the state's vast land holdings, including the huge tracts of grazing acreage, be parceled out and sold? This was favored by those who urged a mainland model of land ownership imposed on the islands and came to be known as the "second mahele." Or should the state retain control of its lands and treat them as an asset to produce income and generate economic growth over the long term?

The resulting Act 32 generally adopted the second of these approaches. With certain well-described exceptions (chiefly benefiting the plantations), public lands were to be leased at auction to the highest bidder. The Department of Land and Natural Resources was required to determine before auction the specific use or uses for which each discrete parcel of land was to be put. The successful bidder was constrained to abide by the identified use.

Thus, for example, if the department was auctioning a lease of land whose intended use was sugar cultivation, the winning bidder could not use it as pasture or for residential purposes, but could - legally, at least - do nothing more than plant it in cane.

The changes effectively transformed public land into a tool the state could use to help certain favored sectors of the economy prosper. Much more was at stake in the leasing of lands than simply getting the most dollar-per-acre of rent. Instead, through the process of identifying and restricting land use, the state was able to push the economy in one or another direction.

The long-term effect of ranching, even by the most conservative ranchers, has been a diminishment of the value of the land to the state, measured by a strictly economic index.

For example, in 1982, the state leased out 172,194 acres of pasture lands on the island of Hawaii. For this, the state was to receive $633,660 a year, or an average rent of about $3.70 an acre. Today, the state leases out 87,091 acres of pasture and agricultural land on Hawaii, with annual rental totaling $340,666, or about $3.90 an acre.

The issue goes beyond the fact that the state is not receiving rent for tens of thousands of acres of public lands formerly under leases. The removal of these lands from rent rolls brings enormous liabilities as well. At Ukumehame on Maui, for example, where the last lessee had grazed 350 cattle on about 5,000 acres until the cattle were starving to death, bringing the land back into productive pasture use would entail replanting on an enormous scale along with the construction of

paddocks and water lines. In today's cattle market, where imported meat is cheaper than that raised locally, the capital investment such improvements would require could not possibly be justified in light of the meager returns provided by grazing at most 600 head of cattle on the land.

A century ago, tens of thousands of acres of Hawaiian forests stood dead and dying, but stood nonetheless. The snags created what one observer called a ghost forest, and riding through it must have been as haunting as a midnight walk through a cemetery over the graves of one's ancestors.

We have lost even the ghost forests. Replacing them is stubble called pasture that is scarcely able to support the cattle and other livestock, which, along with their owners, were largely responsible for the forest's destruction.

One hundred years ago, the territorial government, prodded by planters and encouraged by a conservation movement sweeping across the United States, established a system of forest reserves whose chief purpose was to protect water supplies for the dominant plantation-based agriculture and for urban Honolulu. The protection of forests as a potential source of commercial timber came into play only as a distant, secondary purpose.

The protection of native trees as having the types of value they are imbued with today - values reflective of our awareness of the need to protect endangered species, rare ecosystems and biodiversity - was a notion absolutely foreign to the early foresters of the territory.

Today, whole slopes of mountains blanketed with eucalyptus, and nary a native to be seen, stand behind Honolulu, testament to the urgency with which foresters a century or more ago sought to cover lands denuded by cattle with the fastest-growing trees they could find. To take note of these broad swaths of alien species, repeated throughout the island chain, is not to rebuke the men who undertook such replantings. On the contrary, thanks to their efforts, the productivity of some of the most important watersheds of Hawaii has been retained or restored.

Responsibility for caring for these lands with an eye to preserving rare and endangered species falls back on the state, which is discovering that the pitiable rents received from ranchers over the years fall far short of covering the costs of restoration.

Reprinted by permission of Environment Hawaii, an independent, subscriber-supported monthly publication. For more information please visit www.environment-hawaii.org.

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