Suzanne Case is in charge of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, which has jurisdiction of nearly 1.3 million acres of state lands, beaches and coastal waters, as well as 750 miles of coastline.
But of the DLNR’s wide reach in Hawaii, it is Kauai with which Case feels a strong connection. Her father and uncles were born on the island. When she was a child, Case would visit her grandparents here. Some of her favorite hikes remain in Kokee State Park, where in her youth she trekked through mud — and loved it.
“I like to claim this place,” she said Thursday during her presentation before the Lihue Business Association at Duke’s restaurant. “It’s a very special place in my heart and it’s wonderful to be here.”
Case, born and raised in Hilo, was glad to be back on Kauai.
“I just want to say, this county is the most fun county,” she said, smiling. “It’s the most forward thinking of the counties.”
Case, after a 28-year career with The Nature Conservancy, took over at DLNR in the spring and is still in learning mode. In her one-hour talk, she provided an update of DLNR’s mission, goals and responsibilities — and it’s desire to hear from the public.
“We’re all ears,” said the Stanford University graduate.
DLNR has what Case called “enormous kuleana” in the state. It has authority over state parks, forests, aquatic life and its sanctuaries, public fishing areas, boating, ocean recreation, wildlife and public hunting areas. It’s involved in community outreach and education. It is a steward of lands, from controlling invasive species to making sure watershed lands remain in top condition.
People come from all over the world to visit Hawaii because it is such a special place, she said, and DLNR wants to protect it.
“We need it to stay a special place,” she said.
Along those lines, DNLR has 15 enforcement officers on Kauai, and could use more.
“It’s a lot to cover, especially areas like Kalalau Valley, it’s hard to get out there,” Case said.
She spoke of the agency’s early detection and rapid response methods and explained it is vigilant about dealing with reports of fire ants and the coffee borer beetle.
“We are constantly in responsive mode,” Case said. “We count on the public to let us know when something is amiss.”
One of DLNR’s biggest challenges over the coming decades will be dealing with rising ocean levels and temperatures. There is going to be more shoreline erosion where people own property, so they’re going to want to build seawalls, she said.
“It’s going to be a very, very hard challenge,” Case said.
DLNR believes strongly in open government. For instance, the DLNR’s hearings held earlier this year on the expansion of the humpback whale sanctuary near Kauai were well attended with some “very strong opinions,” Case said, and those opinions matter.
Island residents were also very involved in the state’s first Community-Based Subsistence Fishing Area in Haena that was signed by Gov. David Ige in August, she said.
“We made sure to get input from fishers and the kind of things they were concerned about,” Case said.
She said DLNR would be willing to work with the county to find a solution to Haena State Park crowding problems. The county’s six-month pilot shuttle program on the North Shore was considered a success at alleviating traffic, but was discontinued earlier this year due to funding woes.
DLNR would support a shuttle service.
“We are trying to cooperate closely to find a solution,” she said.
Social media creates more problems for the agency because people use it to get word out they are trying to find Kauai’s hidden places.
But what often happens is people get directed to areas which are not public or require access by going through private lands, and can be dangerous. Besides, that, there are already more people there.
“People think that we’ve conquered nature,” Case said. “If it’s on a map, it must be OK to go there.”
She said DLNR may use social media more aggressively to spread the word some sites are off limits.
“We need to use the tools that are causing the problems to help solve the problems,” she said.