Creating a plan for sustainable land use on Kaua‘i

On Oct. 12 and 13, Kaua’i Community College hosted the Locally Engaging Global Solutions Sustainability Conference, or LEGS. It was sponsored by Apollo Kaua’i and other progressive environmental groups. The conference included speakers, documentary films and panel discussions.

I participated as a panelist under the subject of land use. This article will summarize what we might do on Kaua’i to achieve sustainable land use.

LEGS conference

An important part of the LEGS concept was keeping the movement going forward after the conference ended. Featured speakers were asked to provide handout material that could be the basis of continued efforts on specific subjects like energy, food production and transportation.

One aspect of the LEGS continuity will be built into the upcoming Eco Roundtable Quarterly Meeting sponsored by Please attend this meeting if you are interested in the issue of sustainability on Kaua’i. It is scheduled for Nov. 13, at 5:30 p.m., at the Peace and Freedom Convention Center in Lihu’e. For more information, contact Keone Kealoha at 828-0685 or e-mail

What is sustainability?

In preparing for the LEGS Conference I worked on my own definition of sustainability:

• Using non-renewable resources no faster than they are recycled.

• Using renewable resources no faster than they are produced.

• Maintaining the variety and balance of living species.

• Maintaining the art and knowledge of human cultures.

In general, it is the idea of living within the means of our environment’s resources. More than that, it means doing so while providing an enjoyable quality of life. Sustainability is not, however, a technique for the continuation of the status quo.

That last bit is an important part of the responsibility we have going forward. The idea that going green today means substituting a Prius for a Hummer and switching over to photovoltaics from the KIUC grid is not enough. That is maintainability, not sustainability. Going green, as the corporations are envisioning it, won’t cut it. More profound life changes are imminent.

Resource scarcity

Crude oil is hovering at $95 a barrel. Ethanol, rather than solving the energy problem, will simply make food much more expensive. There seems little doubt that with a falling dollar and housing bubble burst on the Mainland, energy and distribution systems will be greatly taxed.

Here, on an outer island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, we will soon begin to feel the pinch on our non-negotiable lifestyle. Sustainability here will have to focus on providing our own food, water and shelter.

Because we import 90 percent of our food, we will have to increase food production by 10 fold to meet the needs of our current population. At the LEGS Conference, biologist Adam Asquith made a presentation that concluded that our island, with a great deal of effort, might barely be able to feed itself.

It is clear that any significant population growth, accompanied by loss of foodnproducing acreage, will not be sustainable. Environmental and population collapse will be likely.

Current land use plan

Hawai‘i has four land use categories used throughout the state: conservation, agriculture, rural and urban. On Kaua‘i, they break down like this:

• Conservation: 55 percent, including the higher, center portion of the island. This area was generally too steep, remote or dry for agricultural use.

• Agriculture: 40 percent, including all the areas that are relatively level and could be irrigated. Much of that was pineapple or sugarcane plantation once.

• Urban: 4 percent, representing the commercial centers, towns and independent villages scattered around the island. They have been part of sprawl and strip development recently.

• Rural: .5 percent — generally the lowland valleys where the Hawaiians once thrived. Water diversion from the valleys had much to do with unraveling that rural lifestyle in favor of the plantations.

It is interesting that the Kaua‘i General Plan focuses on the importance of maintaining a “rural” lifestyle, while so little of it is rural. What people might mean by “rural” are the foothills of un-utilized agriculture fields framed by the distant mountains of conservation forest. It is still a pretty sight, even to tourists caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

But that vista is threatened. The large property owners that inherited plantation lands cannot make money growing sugarcane. Companies such as Grove Farms and Alexander & Baldwin are itching to convert their thousands of acres into suburban development. What might save our ag-land as “rural”? Making it truly rural.

Proposed land use plan

My presentation to the LEGS Conference was to change the Land Use Map for Kaua‘i. Urban and conservation areas would not be changed. The agriculture landnuse designation would be subdivided into two redefined land uses: forest and rural.

Forest land use would be, like conservation land, non-residential. Forest land would primarily be covered with trees, shrubs and grasses, and it would be low-maintenance. Trees that grow easily and fix nitrogen could be encouraged to hold and rebuild topsoil. Crop trees and grasses would be harvested at a replacement rate. That could include kiawe, jute and hemp in the short run. As the soil becomes more productive and water is retained, other species including koa and sandalwood could be grown. Forest land would be a buffer for conservation land use from more invasive human activity; and it could also be a use that would connect and reinforce conservation land that has become isolated or threatened.

About half of the currently designated agriculture land would be converted to forest. These would be areas adjacent to existing conservation areas and generally on the upper foothills of ag-land. Slowing water runoff from forest land would be an engineering challenge, but prove invaluable in retaining soil and making lower food production areas more productive.

The other half of the agriculture land area would be designated rural, though slightly redefined. Rural land would be the source of food for the island. Large-scale monoculture crops such as corn will not be what feeds us in the future. That technology requires too much fuel, fertilizer and pesticides (all crude-oil derivatives). Rural land would be dedicated to small-scale, organic, permaculture farming. This is the only food production technique that has proven to be sustainable without huge amounts of cheap petrochemicals.

Rural land would allow farmers to live where they farm. It would allow for subdividing current agricultural land. The challenge is to permit such uses and avoid paving over our ag-land with more suburbs.

Protecting food

Rural land could be protected with several tools. The first is productivity assessment, which would be unnecessary if our population was not so large and our island so small. But here we are. Java and Bali practice what we call permaculture. They are on rich volcanic soils and reliable rainfall. These locations support 250 people per square kilometer — that’s about one person per acre of land.

There are 81,000 acres of rural land in this proposal. Given the variation of productivity, it is possible that we might just support our current population if rural land were used to grow food using organic permaculture techniques.

Productivity assessment

Today, to protect and maintain our communities, our county government is very careful to attend to its prime source of income: property taxes. We carefully assess land and buildings. We keep account of ownership and taxes due. We insist on building permits and infrastructure improvements, with an eye on protecting the “golden goose.” A great deal of effort must go into this accounting for the commonwealth of the community.

I suggest the same effort be made to keep food-growing areas productive. All properties should be assessed for soil richness, topographical slope, water access and sunlight. Food production values should be assigned to each acre of rural land. In the future, I suggest that we demand food productivity of rural land, just as we demand taxes based on monetary value of property. If you want to own a place of the country, you’ll have to have some food growing, soil building or animal rearing on your property.

Without “the grid”

The second tool protecting rural land is not delivering “the grid” — roads, private utility lines, county water and sewage system inherent to our suburban lifestyle — to every lot in every neighborhood. In today’s 1/8-acre subdivisions, the public rights-of-way are a contiguous 20 percent of the land area. They are expensive and enable our current unsustainable consumer economy.

I foresee in the not too distant future that energy production and recycling would be provided in local neighborhoods. Rural living would be in walking-riding-biking communities with a few short-axle, alternative vehicles on winding narrow lanes that lead to the nearest village. These lanes would be useless for long shopping expeditions and job commutes. This would create a pleasant and more relaxed community. The suburbia of today would not work on this rural land. If you wanted to be where the action is, or don’t want to tend the land, you can always live in town.

Visit for a map of this plan and more on related subjects.

• Juan Wilson is a resident of Hanapepe and writes a bi-weekly column for The Garden Island. Juan is an architect-planner and the editor of


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