Hawaii County might seek a partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense and other federal agencies in an attempt to obtain federal conservation funds.
At a Tuesday meeting of the Hawaii County Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations, Relations and Economic Development, council members listened to a proposal to designate the entire Island of Hawaii as a “Sentinel Landscape.”
Sentinel Landscapes are areas designated by the U.S. departments of Defense, Agriculture and Interior as lands suited to protect nearby military facilities, such as the Big Island’s Pohakuloa Training Area, from land use that would be incompatible with those facilities’ missions, said Lea Hong, director of the Hawaii office of national conservation nonprofit Trust for Public Land, who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting.
The Sentinel Landscape program would dovetail with an existing partnership between the state and the DOD: the Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration program.
Under the REPI, Hong said, the U.S. Armed Forces have funded various conservation projects throughout the state in exchange for a restriction on how lands adjacent to their military bases have been used. Hong said “compatible uses” for land near military bases includes agriculture and livestock grazing.
“Essentially, (DOD) just don’t want any development,” Hong said, adding that the REPI program began in the 2000s as an effort to prevent the encroachment of urban development upon military facilities.
However, the Sentinel Landscape designation would “supercharge” this partnership with the DOD, Hong said, explaining that, under the designation, any conservation projects under DOD, USDA or DOI programs within the Sentinel Landscape area — which Hong said could encompass the entire island — would be eligible for priority funding from those agencies.
These funds, Hong said, would largely be leveraged by private landowners, but she added that there might be funds available for state and county projects as well.
Hong said the Sentinel Landscape designation does not impose any additional restrictions on the land. Rather, the U.S. Armed Forces support the designation based on Hawaii’s strategic importance in the Indo-Pacific and the security benefits of improving climate change resilience, she said.
Based on Hong’s proposal, most or all of the Big Island, Oahu and Kauai could be designated as a Sentinel Landscape. On the Big Island, Hong’s proposal imagines a 10-mile-radius buffer zone around the military lands at Pohakuloa, the majority of which are already state park or otherwise protected land.
If granted, Hong said the designation would remain in perpetuity. Despite this, Hong said the decision surrounding the designation is unrelated to the upcoming 2029 expiration of the military’s lease for PTA.
“This is a way to try to get some positive benefit from the military’s presence here,” Hong said, noting the negative environmental impacts of sustained military training activity on the island.
If the island is designated a Sentinel Landscape, it would join an exclusive club: Only seven other locations in the nation have been so designated.
“I’m just proposing this on a whim and a prayer,” Hong said. “We don’t have any resources to work toward this right now.”
Hong said she will submit an application for the designation to the DOD at the end of the month. Once the application process begins, she assured that there will be a “more robust” attempt to generate discussion of the issue with members of the public.
At the suggestion of Councilwoman Maile David, who represents Kona and Ka’u, council members can endorse the application on an individual basis within the next week, although they were noncommittal about the proposal at Tuesday’s meeting. David said there was not enough time for an official council resolution on the matter before Hong’s deadline at the end of the month.
Hong said the proposal has the broad support of the state’s Congressional delegation and several county officials, including Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi.
Mayor Mitch Roth, she said, has indicated preliminary support for the proposal.
Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune- herald.com.