The state Natural Area Reserves System Commission voted Monday on Oahu to recommend a two-year extension of the closure of environmentally sensitive areas of the Ahihi-Kinau Natural Area Reserve in South Maui - one year more than an advisory group to the reserve had wanted.
The NARS Commission recommendation will be up for approval June 22 on Oahu by the state Board of Land and Natural Resources.
William Evanson, Maui District NARS program manager, explained that department staff recommended the two-year extension of the closure, which began in August 2008, "just to be safe" as a draft management plan continues to be written.
The Ahihi-Kinau Natural Area Reserve dive spot nicknamed “The Aquarium” (lower right) remains closed to the public. The state Natural Area Reserves Commission has recommended to the state Board of Land and Natural Resources to keep the reserve closed for another two years while a management plan for the reserve is drawn up.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
If approved by the board, the closure will last until August 2014. A portion of the reserve that covers 1,238 acres of land and 807 acres of sea was closed in 2008 to allow for studies and the creation of a management plan after years of damage caused by human use, though a northern area at Waiala and Kanahena coves was left open.
Large numbers of visitors had been traipsing across the lava flows in Ahihi-Kinau in search of coves publicized in guidebooks and snorkel spots, such as "Fishbowl" and "Aquarium." Through the years, NARS staffing declined from six to one ranger and a volunteer program disappeared.
The Ahihi-Kinau Natural Reserve/Keoneoio Advisory Group had recommended only a one-year extension of the closure in a meeting in April.
"Six years now already," said Pat Borge, a neighbor of the reserve and member of the advisory group. There were lots of rangers at one time; now "half of the time there are no rangers," he said Tuesday.
"To me, we going backwards. How much more time do they need to get the plans in place?" Borge asked.
Evanson said Tuesday that the state has heard the advisory committee "loud and clear" and is working to increase staffing at the reserve. The department has made an offer to someone to fill the volunteer coordinator position and will be recruiting soon to fill a supervisory reserve specialist position. Once that position is filled, which he hopes will be in August or September, the department plans to fill three frozen reserve specialist positions, he said. They could be onboard two to three months later, he added.
On the volunteer coordinator position, Evanson said that they wanted to bring the program under the umbrella of the department, rather than have it run by an outside organization as it was in the past. There used to be a volunteer program, but it was not well structured or organized, he said.
"It's not that we are ignoring the advisory commission's recommendations," said Evanson. "It's just that we felt we need more than one year."
Evanson said that the department hopes to have the draft plan completed by October, but a key report on ordnance in the reserve has been delayed. The U.S. military used an area in the reserve for bombing practice in 1945.
The assessment of possible remnant ordnance in the reserve is critical because of the potential health and safety hazards to staff and visitors, Evanson said.
The reports are "tied together but moving together independently," said Evanson.
Joseph Bonfiglio, chief of public affairs with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said that an investigation was completed and found only munitions debris, no unexploded ordnance. There is no firm date for release of the remedial investigation and feasibility study at Ahihi-Kinau, he added.
Rob Parsons, county environmental coordinator and member of the advisory committee, was "perplexed as to why the NARS Commission voted for the two-year closure, when the one year was the strong recommendation of the Maui advisory group."
"There is much frustration at how long the management plan is taking and that things are reportedly getting worse, due to lack of staff, funds and enforcement," he said Tuesday in an email.
"I haven't seen nothing" done since the closure, said Borge. "That's why I get upset. . . . I'm skeptical about it. Everything looks good on paper."
He was in favor of the one-year closure "so that they get off their okoles and do something.
"I hope it's not an excuse . . . another delay tactic."
* Lee Imada can be reached at email@example.com.