Hawaii Releases Grant for Land Conservation

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The Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) has received a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service Forest Legacy Program to purchase a conservation easement on the Big Island of Hawai'i.

This $2 million conservation easement represents the first of two installments totaling $4 million from the Forest Legacy Program to purchase an easement on 9,000 acres of the Kealakekua Heritage Ranch, located approximately 20 miles south of Kailua-Kona.

The Kealakekua Heritage Ranch is currently owned by the Pace family. Prior to the Pace family acquiring the land in May 2004, the County of Hawai'i had approved a $25-30 million development plan for the construction of 500 residential lots and an Arnold Palmer golf course.

However, instead of developing the land in that way, the Pace family decided to permanently protect the majority of the property through conservation easements. Residential development on the property will be limited to only the makai portions of the ranch.

The Forest Legacy Program identifies important forest lands that are threatened by conversion to non-forest uses, and provides funds to state agencies that are equipped to protect these lands in perpetuity. The program allows states to utilize the program to either fully or partially fund acquisitions of forest land.

"Thanks to the conservation-minded Pace family, and a partnership between DLNR and the U.S. Forest Service, this land will be preserved for future generations," said DLNR Chairperson Laura H. Thielen.

The Kealakekua Heritage Ranch represents a "bargain purchase" of the property for less than the appraised value. The landowner may donate the remainder of the value as a match requirement of the program and/or utilize this value as a federal and state tax deduction. Half of the funds for this purchase, $2 million for 4,000 acres, has been allocated by the U.S. Congress through the Forest Legacy Program and the remaining half stands a high chance of being funded.

The $4 million grant request was based upon costs associated with the completion of conservation easement transaction, and the further implementation of a forest management plan.

In 2005, a preliminary assessment of the value of the easement was conducted by the Hallstrom Group of Honolulu, which provided a value of $30,750,000. Prior to conveyance, a full appraisal of the easements will be required to assure that the easement's value exceeds a minimum of $5,334,000, which totals the $4 million request plus the necessary 25 percent match requirement of the Forest Legacy Program.

While some development protection already exists on the mauka portions of this land as part of a rezoning ordinance, the most significant of those restrictions are only in place for 40 years.

For the Paces, protection also means implementing a land/forest management plan that truly demonstrates their commitment to sustainability, as well as their eagerness to provide for the surrounding community. The property is serving as a community hub for numerous local and regional interests as well as an important research area that will provide valuable insight into quantifying groundwater percolation rates among differing land cover regimes.

Within the ranch's history of nearly 200 years of timber extraction, many of the large trees, specifically koa and sandalwood, were cut for long straight boards, leaving the remainder of the trees to decay. These practices ultimately resulted in significant loss of forest cover. After buying the property, the Pace family built a wood shop and kiln and hired local woodworkers to salvage the dead wood for use in wood floors, cabinets, and furniture.

To further restore the land, the ranch owners have opted to enter into the state's Forest Stewardship Program (FSP) for the next 30 years. A contract is currently being developed that outlines management plans and provides a 50 percent reimbursable cost-share with the landowner for practices carried out under FSP.

These practices include, but are not limited to, a reduction in size of the existing cattle herds and fencing sensitive and designated areas for natural regeneration and plantings. Restoration efforts will focus on the improvement and expansion of critical habitat for a number of threatened and endangered species.