Kilauea expansion eyed

The Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge — a premier habitat for rare Hawaiian wildlife and plant species — could be expanded from 52 acres, to as much as 217 acres, under a land protection plan undertaken by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The expansion, which involves land near the mouth of the Kilauea River, and valuable mauka lands in the valleys of Kilauea, would enhance one of the state’s largest, if not the largest, colony for rare Hawaiian birds and migratory birds.

They include the Hawaiian state bird, the nene, and migratory birds like the Laysan albatross.

The key features of the protection plan are highlighted in a government-sponsored draft environmental assessment that is scheduled to be completed by the end of this month, said Michael “Mitch” Mitchell, the deputy project leader for the Kauai National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

That complex includes the 199-acre Kilauea refuge, the 917-acre Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge on the North Shore of Kaua’i, and the 241-acre Huleia National Wildlife Refuge outside of Lihu’e. The Hanalei and the Huleia refuges contain marshlands offering protection for endangered Hawaiian waterbirds.

Mitchell said the draft environmental study for the proposed expansion of the Kilauea refuge will be reviewed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials, and will be released for public comment, possibly some time this spring.

Agency representatives began work on the plan last March, and have met with residents numerous times and have solicited public comments for the development of the plan.

The plans lays out four alternatives, according to the agency’s Web site,

  • No expansion
  • Expansion of the refuge by 52 acres, involving the acquisition of 35 acres of coastal bluffs, 5 acres of coastal dunes and 12 acres by the Kilauea River
  • Expansion of the refuge by 182 acres, involving the acquisition of the 165 acres of lowland habitats, 12 acres of coastal river mouth area and 5 acres of coastal dunes
  • Expansion of the refuge by 217 acres, involving the acquisition of 165 acres of brackish and freshwater wetlands, riparian, upland shrub, forest and areas around the Kilauea River, 12 acres of coastal river mouth area, 5 acres of dunes and 35 acres of coastal bluff.

The last option would provide the widest range of protection. It would protect a variety of habitats ranging from coastal bluffs for nesting seabirds, beach dunes for the federally protected Hawaiian monk seals and green sea turtles and wetlands for endangered wetland birds.

The fourth option, if implemented, also would allow for the restoration of the native habitat.

The land study was authorized after the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge Expansion Act of 2004, initiated by U.S. Rep. Ed Case, D-Neighbor Islands-rural O’ahu, was signed into law on Dec. 23, 2004.

In the same way that federal legislation was passed that authorized the expansion of the refuge, federal legislation, and a money appropriation, will have to be advanced for the acquisition of the privately-owned lands.

Case said he probably will not ask Congress for as much because of the pending donation of parcels by private landowners.

Case said the appropriation bill to Congress will be based on what will actually be acquired.

But securing the federal funds won’t be easy, he said, because the Bush administration has different funding priorities and doesn’t necessarily view the expansion of federal lands as a priority, Case said.

“The administration is very resistant to any expansion because they say we should focus on maintenance, and I am saying the heck with maintenance,” Case said. “I just want to protect it (the Kilauea refuge). We can deal with maintenance later.”

Kilauea, which is located next to the Princeville resort area, is ripe for urbanization — the result of more population growth, county officials have said.

“When you are in the path of development (like the Kilauea refuge is), you have to bring it under protection first, and worry about maintenance later,” Case said.

Case said the challenges to expanding the Kilauea refuge are not insurmountable. The expansion of federal lands on the Big Island in the past inspired him, he said.

Land in Honuapo, located in the south side of the Big Island, was set aside for protection through a “combination” of federal funds and private funds, some generated through fundraisers by local folks on the Big Island, Case said.

The same can be done at the Kilauea refuge, he said.

The Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1865 following the transfer of land from the U.S. Coast Guard.

Humpback whales, Hawaiian monk seals and spinner dolphins can be viewed from the lighthouse, which was built in 1912 as a navigational aid for commercial ships that traveled between Hawai’i and the Orient, and was used for 62 years.

  • Lester Chang, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 225) and lchang@

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