Residents oppose plans for hunting, game reserve in Kanaio

Thousands of sweeping acres in Kanaio are being considered as a location for a hunting and game reserve. The state Department of Land and Natural Resources said it would increase legal hunting opportunities, but many residents are concerned about safety, illegal hunting and resource depletion. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Plans to create a hunting and game reserve in Kanaio are stirring up opposition from residents who say it will have little benefit to the community.

The 8,000-acre parcel that the state Department of Land and Natural Resources is considering for the reserve would stretch from the shoreline to the 1,800-foot elevation, according to the department’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife.

The department and some residents believe it would allow for public hunting and protection of resources that suffer from illegal traffic and cattle grazing. But others worry about safety, illegal hunters and the taking of local resources from a community that relies heavily on the land.

“This is one of the last remaining communities where people still live off the land, still go down to the beach to fish and throw net,” said Paige DePonte, whose family owns the 150-acre Triple L Ranch and the Bully’s Burgers restaurant in the area. “It’s been a beautiful, peaceful community for a long time and now they want to take it over.”

A change.org petition started by DePonte had amassed 2,048 signatures as of Sunday. But another group in favor of the reserve has created a petition of its own. It had 100 signatures.

Signs like this one went up in Kanaio about two weeks ago, residents said. They fear the signs are the beginning of restricted access to an area used to reach the beach. Paige DePonte photo

“There is a legitimate need for this range. It would not be expensive to create,” Makawao resident Gretchen Cardosa posted on the petition’s page on change.org. “Three months ago at Kula Park, two men were using the soccer field to practice archery. . . . It was quite unsafe for park goers and not what a soccer field is intended for. A proper range would be excellent.”

Scott Fretz, Maui branch manager of the DLNR’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife, said that the plan is still in its “preliminary” stage. The DLNR wants to draw up a management plan and environmental assessment to determine if the area is suitable for a game reserve.

“We haven’t even started that process yet,” he said. “All we’ve done is say, this is a possible place, let’s begin the scoping process.”

The department is looking at 8,000 acres, about 5,900 of which are department-owned lands, according a division request to the Board of Land and Natural Resources to seek contractors for environmental assessment and management plans. As for the private lands within those 8,000 acres, Fretz said that division officials have talked to landowners about entering into cooperative agreements to create game management areas, but no agreements have been established yet.

But residents said plans seemed to be moving forward without their consent. DePonte said that almost two weeks ago, signs were placed on the property the department is considering, barring such things as campfires, alcohol, unrestrained animals and off-road vehicles. She said that the community feared the signs are the beginning of restricted access to an area used to reach the beach.

Despite repeated requests, the department was unable to provide information about when and why the signs were put up, and whether they would prevent people from driving certain vehicles down to the beach. The department’s Maui land agent has been out of the office and is the only one who could answer questions about the signs, according to department spokeswoman Deborah Ward.

Fretz, however, said that the division “has no intention of closing the beach,” except in emergencies.

“We recognize that access is a big thing for people,” he said. “We have no intention of changing access in any way, nor do we plan to improve the road for the visitor market.”

Fretz said that the division’s duties include promoting public hunting and finding areas for people to do so. Hunters statewide have been asking the department for more hunting space, especially because the department’s work to control game animals in watersheds — preventing them from destroying native plants — has decreased the amount of hunting opportunities.

“We’re pursuing it because we have a very large constituency of people who are supportive of this and do want it,” he said.

Attempts to contact the organizer of the petition in support of the reserve were unsuccessful. However, many who signed the petition said that a range for safe archery practice was much needed on Maui. Some also liked the prospect of expanding public access to land.

“Most everyone’s backyard is too small and dangerous to be shooting in,” Kahului resident Jayson Kina commented on the petition. “The conservation side of it is nice, to allow the animals to reproduce and settle down.”

The hunting areas nearest to Kanaio are the Kula and Kahikinui forest reserves. Fretz explained that the Kanaio area is potentially good because the 5,900 acres of state land are “unencumbered,” meaning nobody is leasing or using it for any other purpose. Archery hunting of game mammals like deer, pigs and goats, and shotgun hunting of birds would be permitted in the reserve. Preliminary assessments show that the area has enough game to support a hunting program, Fretz said.

But Kula resident Uilani Uwekoolani-Aarona, whose father and grandmother were born and raised in Kanaio, disagrees.

“There’s very little deer or birds that are already in the area,” Uwekoolani-Aarona said. “A lot of the people that live out there use that to supply their own refrigerators or feed their own families.”

She added that the area is rife with historically and culturally significant sites, from family graveyards to caves containing ancient Hawaiian tools.

“You’re bringing strangers into our backyard, into places that we have gone for generations,”  Uwekoolani-Aarona said. “Down there has a lot of history. A lot of it has been untouched by anything other than the elements. . . . Other people come in, and things like that would be messed with.”

In addition, some residents believe the department should have no claim to the land, saying it was part of the 1.8 million acres statewide that were ceded to the U.S. government after the annexation of Hawaii in 1898. The Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. is reviewing the matter but is not yet ready to comment, said Cedric Duarte, who handles communications for the nonprofit law firm.

The county tax map key indicates that the 5,948 acres belong to the State of Hawaii.

“There is not any question in the official record that the lands are owned by the state,” Fretz said. “People can disagree politically if the State of Hawaii has a legitimate claim to the lands, but that’s a political issue.”

Fretz said that having a game reserve could benefit the community by allowing people to hunt, which is not legal in the area right now. It would also improve the law enforcement presence to control illegal hunters and keep dirt bikers from destroying natural and cultural sites. He added that the department does not want to change the area’s rugged character, and that a state-managed reserve would help the department preserve habitats and encourage the growth of wildlife.

But DePonte said that the Kanaio community is growing, estimating there are about 400 owners in the community, not counting their family members. Some hope to see a child care center and adolescent recovery center built there in the future.

“This is where I want to retire and have my grandkids,” she said. “Am I going to take my grandkids down to the beach while ducking bullets?”

Because the plans are still in the early stages, Fretz said that hours for the reserve wouldn’t be determined until later. A formal process for hearing comments has not yet started.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.