On an oppressively hot and humid Saturday, Ursula Retherford and Levani Lipton are out in the unrelenting sun handing out fliers. The two are talking to hikers — tourists and locals alike — at the base of Oahu’s popular Ma’akapu lighthouse trail, part of a stretch of protected coastal land just to the east of Honolulu known as the Ka Iwi State Scenic Shoreline.
Retherford and Lipton, both Hawaii residents, are stumping on behalf of a community conservation movement called “Save Ka Iwi Coast Coalition,” which is working alongside the Trust for Public Lands. The last privately-owned parcel of land along the popular coast is up for sale. Unless the group raises the necessary funds to buy it, it will most likely be developed, spoiling the uninterrupted swath of protected land.
These are the last two parcels that are privately-owned…if they get developed, it will change the feeling of the whole coast.
The Ka Iwi Coast is “unlike any other” on the island of Oahu. The scenic drive, barely 20 minutes out of Honolulu, is highly popular with tourists, while for locals, “it’s our release valve” from the city of Honolulu, Lipton said. It includes Koko Head Distric Park, an extinct volcanic tuff cone, and steep lava cliffs dropping to the sea, where breaking waves cause eruptions of foam. The land is crossed with hiking trails, and passes two of Oahu’s best body-surfing beaches. On a sunny day, its scenic overlooks are clogged with cars.
“Everyone knows when you do the drive from the eastern shore, when you come around the corner from the town of Waimanolo and Makapu’u, it’s just this beautiful panorama of the ocean and the mountain…it’s one of the wonderful things about our islands, the natural resources and the rustic beauty that we have,” said Lipton.
However, the scenic surroundings and close proximity to Honolulu also make the land highly attractive real estate. Many developers have aspired to build on the land throughout the years, with proposals spanning from luxury hotels to vacation cabins to a golf academy. Community activism has managed to rebuff these attempts and turn it, piece by piece, into protected state parkland.
“We’re trying to keep it the way it is now, in its natural state,” said Retherford. “These are the last two parcels that are privately-owned. But they sort of hold the key…if they get developed, it will change the feeling of the whole coast.”
Save Ka Iwi Coast Coalition is trying to preserve two parcels comprising 182 acres immediately inland of the Makapu’u lighthouse trail. The land is slated to be sold at a bankruptcy court in Utah at the end of the month.
“It’s the last thing they have to sell. And they want to close the case, and they have another buyer,” said Retherford.
Although Retherford said they don’t know who the other buyer is, they have been told the buyer is prepared to purchase the land outright. The community has until August 30th to raise $4 million — the going price for the land.
“The did not accept our offer until two months ago. So that gave us really 10 weeks to raise the money,” Rutherford said. “The state gave us $1 million. The city gave us $2.5 million. And so, we have to raise $500,000 in 10 weeks. And so, that is why we are out here. We are hustling.”
To raise the remaining $500,000, Lipton said, “People have gone online, people have come out to participate, people have been sign-waving…it’s a community effort.” As of publishing time, the group is only $146,760 short.
The current fundraising effort is just the latest attempt to conserve land in Hawaii. Island groups have been pushing to conserve tracts of land for the past 40 years — and largely succeeding. One of the first parcels of lands preserved on the coastline was Sandy Beach Park, a popular body-surfing spot and a favorite of President Obama since childhood. The community collected 40,000 signatures in 10 weeks to get a ballot initiative preserving the land, preventing a luxury condo from building on the beach.
“What we have now in the way of open space is really the result of the public working for it,” said Retherford, who’s been involved with the conservation push since the beginning.
The debate over public lands rages in both Hawaii and the mainland. In July, President Obama announced that he would add three new national monuments — and more than one million acres of public lands — to the 16 he’s already designated while president. Meanwhile, proposals to seize and sell off national public lands have been introduced by conservative lawmakers in both the House and the Senate. And while the Obama administration has set aside more public lands than any other, the administration has also kept thousands of acres of public land open to coal mining, which is the largest source of U.S. carbon emissions.
“Hawaii is a microcosm. People are having this debate all over the world. It’s development and technology and money versus open space and the environment,” Levani said.
According to Save Ka Iwi Coast Coalition’s website, if the funds are raised in time the land will be held by a local nonprofit and the Trust for Public Land as a “community-owned and stewarded cultural landscape.” The city of Honolulu will also ensure that the lands remain undeveloped by holding a conservation easement over the properties. In addition social and environmental concerns, the conservation movement says that the parcel of the Ka Iwi Coast that’s up for sale contains many unstudied ancient Hawaiian cultural sites.
“If the public donates, then the public owns it” said Levani. “It’s about residents, visitors, and people who are living today but also about future generations. And so, we want to set that precedent for them.”