Big Ideas, Plenty of Uncertainty at Hawaii Environmental Council

Annual strategic planning meeting focuses on invasive species, climate change and the struggle to combat them.
Honolulu Civil Beat - August 22, 2014
By: 
Anita Hofschneider and Nathan Eagle

The Hawaii Environmental Council’s annual strategic planning meeting on Thursday started with weighty discussions of two major problems confronting the state: climate change and invasive species.
Scientists are warning that climate change may result in rising seas and drought across the Hawaiian islands, and fallen albizia trees in Puna last weekend illustrated the unintended consequences of invasive plants.

But by the end of a full day of discussions, it was clear that the cash-strapped state board has few resources with which to address those issues and is unsure whether it can expect any relief next legislative session.

Budget cuts have hampered the 15-member council’s ability to meet its mission, which includes reviewing and commenting on environmental impact statements and establishing the rules for the environmental review process.

The council serves as a liaison between the public and Office of Environmental Quality Control, now under the directorship of Jessica Wooley, a former state representative.
“We’ve been operating somewhat dysfunctionally for a very long time because we haven’t had the resources,” said Wooley, an ex-officio member of the council.
The office had 11 people at the end of Gov. Ben Cayetano’s administration, she said, but now has five at best.

Wooley wants to change that. She’s pushing for the Environmental Council to have a separate budget from OEQC so that the council can at least have its own secretary. As it stands, the council chair, Mark Ambler, stays up late some nights typing up meeting minutes because there’s no one else to do it.

On Thursday, Wooley proposed a budget of roughly $80,000 for the council for fiscal year 2016, including $40,000 for a secretary, $23,000 for expenses and the rest for equipment.
Councilwoman Marjorie Ziegler argued that the council’s budget proposal should be more ambitious and that the board members should push for more.

“This is coffee money,” Ziegler said. “We need to start thinking like advocates and activists and not government agencies who will just roll over and not do anything because we can’t get $20,000.”
Wooley agreed that more money is needed but cautioned that even requesting a separate budget for the council is ambitious.

“That’s not just moving a mountain, that’s like moving a planet,” she said.

She said in the few months that she’s served as OEQC director, she’s been shocked at the disconnect between the organization’s mission and its resources.

“Everything that I’m seeing since I started this job is crazy,” she said. “It’s insane what the staff is expected to do. Our budget is about $50,000 for our staff… May I remind you that the marketing budget for the Hawaii Tourism Authority is about $60 million?”

Wooley also plans to ask the Legislature to remove OEQC from the control of the Department of Health, citing the mismatched goals of the organizations.

She was trying to get Internet connectivity in the office, but faced weeks of bureaucratic barriers because of DOH’s rules regarding privacy.

“You and OEQC are stuck under a rock in DOH and it doesn’t fit,” she told council members.

Multiple Responsibilities

Regardless of whether the funding materializes, Ambler wants the board to be more active at the Legislature and come up with ways to make the most of the upcoming International Union for Conservation of Nature World Conservation Conference, which Hawaii is hosting in 2016. It’s been likened to the Olympics of conservation and marks the first time the conference will be held in the United States.

He also wants the council to increase its public outreach. It is supposed to serve as a public liaison, but few people know it exists.
Ambler hopes to add video conferencing to allow people on the neighbor islands to watch the meetings. Another goal is to increase the organization’s number of Facebook likes from 230 to 300. (Vice Chair Scott Glenn suggested 400, but Ambler said he didn’t know if that was realistic.)

Ziegler said part of the problem is that people think invasive species are a fringe issue that environmentalists worry about. She is concerned that the public fails to see how it’s also a huge economic issue.

“It’s a shame that so little attention is given to invasive species,” she said. “We need to do more.”
But it’s tough for the all-volunteer board to juggle all its responsibilities, which include updating the list of state projects receiving exemptions from environmental rules and coming up with ways to update the environmental rules.

A Need for Political Allies

Hawaii’s changing political landscape is casting a shadow of uncertainty over the council’s work.

“There’s things up in the air now that we won’t know until November,” Glenn said.

The council has been working for years to revise the environmental rules under Chapter 343, but Glenn is not sure whether the next governor — state Sen. David Ige, former Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona or former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann — will support the revisions.

Glenn has good cause for concern after former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle didn’t agree to the revised rules the council proposed during her administration.

Despite the uncertainty, Wooley said, the council needs to move forward with drafting new rules because they are outdated and leave the state vulnerable to lawsuits.

“There’s no reason for us to be operating under such ambiguous, unclear rules,” she said. “I don’t think we should hesitate to push for rule revision regardless of who’s in office.”

It’s also unclear how much support the council will receive at the Legislature next year.

Next year’s Legislature will be missing two key senators who helped secure millions of dollars to address invasive species this year: Ige, who chaired the Senate Ways and Means Committee, and Judiciary Committee Chair Clayton Hee.

But Rep. Chris Lee and Sen. Mike Gabbard, who chair the House and Senate committees for the environment and attended Thursday’s meeting, say they’ll continue to push to address invasive species and climate change.

“Clayton was certainly a champion for focusing on the issue (of invasive species),” Lee said. “But ultimately I think someone will step into those shoes… We have to address those issues because we can’t afford not to.”

He plans to re-introduce measures to promote water conservation and ensure sea level rise is taken into account in public infrastructure projects.

Meanwhile, Gabbard, an ex-officio member of the Hawaii Invasive Species Council, plans to revisit Senate Bill 2347, which passed the Senate but died in the House this year.

Glenn Teves, a council member and longtime University of Hawaii agriculture extension agent on Molokai, brought up the measure during Thursday’s meeting and pointed out that the plant nursery industry lobbied hard against the bill and defeated it. He suggested part of the reason it may have died is that everyone was being too nice.

“We really need to start blaming who is responsible for the problem,” he said.

The bill would have cracked down on invasive species by making more things subject to pest inspection, prohibiting transportation of designated pests, banning possession of certain pests, allowing the designation of quarantine areas and creating penalties for violations.

“We’ve got to get a handle on this thing,” Gabbard said. “It’s ridiculous.”