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Will Hawaii learn to live with Eco-Tourism?

There was standing room only at the public meeting for the Waimalu Nature Park project.
There was standing room only at the public meeting for the Waimalu Nature Park project.
Keith Rollman

Everyone agrees in principle that Hawaii should develop new sustainable, eco-friendly tourism. The problems arise when one such project lands too close to home.

On February 19th there was a community informational meeting held to discuss the Waimalu Nature Park and Zipline Canopy Tour, a combination of a nature center facility and commercial zipline operation in the hills above the Newtown Estates and Royal Summit communities in Aiea. The room was filled to capacity, mostly by residents of the adjoining community who feared they could be negatively impacted. Developer and landowner Towne Development gave a short presentation on the project followed by testimony from private citizens. While courteous and civil, the proceedings illustrated just how much still has to be communicated and how much listening still needs to take place.

This type of community meeting will likely be repeated across the state as more projects like this one are proposed.

This meeting represents the beginning of the process by which projects like Waimalu Nature Park will try to encourage this new form of low impact eco-tourism. The first step is to convince their prospective new neighbors that Hawaii needs this new type of sustainable visitor attraction and the jobs they create. The trick will be addressing the concerns of nearby residents and assuring them that the good outweighs the bad.

If everyone likes the idea, but would prefer to see it in someone else’s community instead, this promising new industry will flounder.

Towne Development’s Chris Lau was pretty clear about his project not representing the “foot in the door” for future development and that many of the issues raised by residents had already been addressed (but perhaps not properly communicated to them). In fact many of their specific complaints could actually be improved by the presence of the finished project. Security would improve, and access by unauthorized partiers, mountain bikers and paint ball players would cease. On-street parking by trespassers virtually eliminated with paying visitors shuttled in by vans and not allowed to park in the neighborhood. Any noisy zipliners would be tucked almost a mile away in the back of the valley, and visual impact would likely be zero, with the ziplines and participants well out of sight.

One concern expressed by opponents bordered on the absurd. They were worried that the increased number of visitors would lead to increased crime. I doubt the honeymooners from Japan will slip away from their tour group and dawn Ninja outfits and start burglarizing the neighborhood. Other concerns were more legitimate, but none insurmountable.

One important point was not made during the meeting. This large tract of land is zoned conservation with very limited activities approved by the State Department of Land and Natural Resources; with the proposed nature park being one. The community would like to have nothing happen with it at all, yet expects the landowner to support the costs of security, maintenance and taxes without any income. That’s not a reasonable expectation. If the owners of these conservation parcels are allowed to provide low impact eco-tourism opportunities they will then be able to generate income that will allow for proper stewardship of these parcels. It costs money to build fences, provide security guards and combat invasive species. Both the land and the neighborhood would be better for these services. The trade-offs necessary, on the part of the local residents, are not nearly as onerous as they might imagine them to be. But, it is important for Towne Development to earn their trust and work with them to address every single fear...real or imagined.

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