LAWAI KAI — Gov. Neil Abercrombie smiled as he was handed a newborn honu — or green sea turtle — Thursday afternoon on the shores of Lawai Bay.
“He has sand in his eyes,” said Abercrombie, sympathetically trying to wipe the grains away before personally releasing it into the sea.
Don Heacock, an aquatic biologist with the State Department of Land and Natural Resources, said the event signified that Abercrombie “holds Hawaii’s environmental future in his hands.”
Heacock supervised the excavation of the turtle nest, part of an invitation-only event celebrating the establishment of the Lawai Kai Special Subzone, which includes the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s Allerton Garden, as well as the adjacent beach and Lawai Bay.
The designation is meant to “preserve and protect an important environmental, cultural and historical treasure on Kauai’s South Shore — today and long into the future,” according to a release for the event.
“We’re celebrating a major milestone today,” said Chipper Wichman, CEO of NTBG.
In January 2007, community members and stakeholders formed the Lawai Kai Citizens Advisory Committee, made up of organizations, businesses, residents, beach users and other interested parties.
The committee determined that Lawai Kai was a special and sacred place that must be protected, respected and cherished, not turned into a recreational resource or follow in the footsteps of tourist-packed areas like Poipu Beach, according to Wichman.
“This area should be a puuhonua, it should be a place of refuge,” he said. “That doesn’t mean to exclude people, but we need to manage it in balance.”
In April, the State Board of Land and Natural Resources unanimously approved the subzone, with Abercrombie signing it into law in June.
After being thanked by Wichman for taking time out of his busy schedule, the governor said that wasn’t the case at all.
“This is a selfish moment for me, because believe me I wanted to be here today,” he said. “And most particularly to congratulate the advisory group.”
Abercrombie said the advisory committee spent the last seven years working “out of love” — devoted not to the property, but to the experience the property offers.
Several years ago, Abercrombie and his wife stayed at Allerton Garden, after receiving an invitation from Wichman. He said it never occurred to him at the time that he would be the one to sign the subzone designation.
“I take great pride in it,” Abercrombie said. “I tell you it’s a joy for me to be here today.”
Wichman briefly discussed the history of the culturally and historically important area, describing it as “a sacred ground.” In fact, the cliffs near Lawai Bay hold centuries-old burial sites.
“This is an area that has been sacred to our ancestors for countless, countless generations,” Wichman said. “It’s not without a lot of history that we’ve embarked on this project.”
For hundreds of years, the area was used by native Hawaiians who farmed the land and fished in the bay. After the Great Mahele in 1848, the land was awarded to James Young Kanehoa, and later his wife Hikoni. It was eventually deeded to James Kanehoa’s niece, Queen Emma, the widow of Kamehameha IV.
Abercrombie said that when he enters the property he feels as if he is entering another dimension.
“It’s as close as I think we can come in our real lives, in our everyday lives, to the cinematic opportunity we’ve had to poke a hole in time,” he said. “That’s what we can do here. This gives us an opportunity to reflect very deeply and very clearly about what kind of legacy we have here in Hawaii, here in paradise.”
For that reason, Abercrombie said it is important to preserve Lawai Kai.
“It’s not just going to be another page in a tourist handbook,” he said. “You cannot come to this puuhonua without being deeply effected.”
Wichman stressed that the subzone is not meant to privatize the area, but to give the community the opportunity to have a hand in protecting and managing it into perpetuity. Also, it will only be successful if the community buys in and supports it, he said.
“It’s only the beginning,” he said, “because if the community doesn’t take advantage of this opportunity then the visitor industry will.”
In addition to being a beautiful and culturally significant area, the beach between Lawai Bay and the Allerton Garden is one of Kauai’s few major nesting sites for the threatened green sea turtle.
So far this year there have been 21 nesting events on the beach — with at least 12 active nests — more than any previous year in history, according to Wichman.
Kauai County Councilwoman Nadine Nakamura, who has been on the advisory committee since the beginning, said she does not want Lawai Kai to end up like Kee, on Kauai’s North Shore.
“It’s such a special place,” she said. “We can see, when we don’t take care of our resources, what can happen.”
Rick Haviland, also an advisory committee member and owner of Outfitters Kauai, said he was pleased to see the subzone created.
“The group’s guiding light is to preserve Lawai Kai for future generations, must as it exists today,” he said. “Pristine. Beautiful.”
• Chris D’Angelo, environment writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.