Rob Parsons

Reading the Daily Muse


by Rob Parsons

This is keeping Maui "green?"

January 10, 2008

I have a friend who refers to our big daily newspaper alternately as the "fish wrapper" and "The Maui Snooze." Yet, like myself, he is a devoted reader, rarely missing a day. Years ago, The Maui News published four days a week-Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Often people would line up at the old Maui News offices, as the afternoon paper offered a first glimpse at home rental possibilities.

The daily paper has grown as Maui has grown. More advertisers spend more money, and the "Snooze" now has morning distribution and big Mainland corporate ownership. It's a smoothie-like blend of elements: down-home local interest and sports stories; wire stories of world and national news; corporate media page-two pandering on celebrity blunders; national editorial columnists like George Will and Ellen Goodman; and letters-lots of letters.

The Maui News also carries a gem of a feature column: Shave Ice, by long-time Hawai`i resident Tom Stevens. The author-a schoolteacher, beach volleyball enthusiast, jazz buff and much more-captures island life with the grandeur of an entomologist swooping up a rare and beautiful butterfly, displaying it for all to see.

Before she retired to follow other pursuits, reporter Valerie Monson filled the role of probing reporter to the best extent her editors would allow. But the Snooze's writing is often mundane at best, sometimes even bordering on the bizarre. I've often attended public meetings only to read the account the following day and wonder if the reporter had covered an entirely different event.

My friend would single out a particular writer, the "Eager One," as he called him, for his peculiar slants on local stories. It's possible, my friend said, that this writer might be local chapter head of the Flat Earth Society, considering his unwavering stance of refusing to accept prevailing scientific studies on global warming.

And so it was an uncommon surprise to read a recent Maui News editorial, published on the second day of this New Year, titled, "Consider 7 generations." Far from their usual middle-of-the-road, play-it-safe approach, this op-ed contained a timeless wisdom.

"Maui's economy is based on the visitor industry," the editorial began. "The visitor industry stands firmly on the island's environment, a broad term generally referring to the face and substance of nature. Environment also encompasses island traditions, and most importantly, recognition of the host Hawaiian culture.

"In traditional life," the editorial continued, "major decisions consider the effect of decisions on seven generations-looking beyond the immediate to the future. Maui is beyond the point of being cavalier about the future. The island can easily be loved to death. Change is inevitable. Destructive change is possible. Considered change can preserve the best of island life while making evolution possible."

It went on to detail how our reefs and ocean are under attack from pesticides, herbicides, soil runoff and over-fishing. It said our land is under similar stress by a growing population requiring housing, jobs and transportation-all threats to the open spaces that provide a breath of fresh air for us all.

It's not often our media or decision makers are willing to make such bold assertions on how we should handle the issues of the day. It's largely indicative of how far society has strayed from balance with the planet and resources that sustain all living things.

Since foreigners began arriving in Hawai`i 200 years ago, drastic changes to the environment, culture and way of life have been the norm. Broad changes to the native ecosystems followed economic pushes to harvest sandalwood, graze cattle, and alter the islands' waterways to produce sugar for export.

Fifty years ago, island investors saw the economic future of moving beyond agriculture to harvest a new crop-tourism. Since then, the past two generations have witnessed an unprecedented and rapid growth in the visitor, construction and real estate industries, as well as an influx of new residents.

Growing pains are clearly being felt from the last few decades of embracing the same kind of rapid development and urban sprawl characteristic of Anywhere, USA. Still, Conde Nast Traveler awarded Maui "Best Island in the World" for 12 years running, and that has proved to be both a blessing and a curse.

Of all the Hawaiian Islands, Maui is the most dependent on tourism for fueling our economy, which brings in more than 40 percent of our total revenue. Molokai residents have fought valiantly to protect their rural ways of life, subsistence hunting and fishing and cultural values. Their island community is functioning quite well without Big Box stores, mega-plex theaters, time-share resort sales and cruise ship visits. Still, facing pressures like Maui, Molokai's community is encountering a proposed development at La`au Point that could substantially change an area that has remained wild and untouched for untold generations.

Faced with the continuing commodification of Maui's lands and resources by outside corporate investors, what are our options? What choices can we make that abide by the indigenous cultural precept of looking ahead at least seven generations?

Sailing in like a majestic voyaging canoe, one recent arrival is the concept of "sustainability." More than a buzzword, sustainability describes seven-generation thinking, and is the only course worth sailing into the future. Anything short of sustainability is the equivalent of writing checks on an overdrawn account.

While we seek to patch the holes in our sailing canoe and trim the sails, we may look first to the biggest holders of our land and water resources. Not coincidentally, these may be the same entities responsible for stresses on our environment, allowing widespread soil, air and water contamination through chemical use, burning and widespread tilling. It's time for our plantations to step into the 21st century and lead Maui into a future where we may be a worldwide example of self-sufficiency and balance.

Four days before their forward-looking Jan. 2 editorial, The Maui News printed another opinion titled, "Maui should remain green." It contended that there are two relatively new, "hard-headed reasons" for supporting Hawai`i Commercial & Sugar (HC&S)'s operations on 37,000 acres.

Keeping the land in cane, the editorial postulated, will keep it away from the pressures to develop it for urban use, even though HC&S and its parent company, Alexander & Baldwin (A&B), have regularly sold off or developed chunks of land for commercial, residential, industrial or resort purposes.

The Maui News then opined that keeping HC&S's sugar industry afloat could help wean us off fossil fuels, as the sugar could produce ethanol, to meet the 10 percent mandate in our gasoline since April 2006.

"Opposed to massive development and in favor of weaning the island off fossil fuels?" the editorial asked. "Encourage [A&B] to invest in keeping Maui green by building what should be a profitable and ecologically sound ethanol plant."

These arguments look appealing at first glance, especially when considering it could mark an end to the archaic, polluting, health-compromising practice of cane-burning (which the editorial termed "annoying"). But would keeping vast acreage in sugar meet the seven-generation test?

Water is one of our most precious resources, and East Maui Irrigation, providing ditch water to the cane fields, represents the state's largest water diversion. A growing population needs locally grown food to survive, not just fuel to keep our cars driving to the malls and Big Box stores. Water resource priorities set by our elected leaders should have food production for local use at, or near the top, of the list.

Converting sugar to ethanol also consumes energy. Currently, bagasse and coal run the HC&S boilers and the mill, with excess electricity sold to Maui Electric Company. Some 60,000 tons of coal are imported annually. Also, ethanol distillation produces a stinky, organic byproduct called vinesse at a 12-1 ratio for each gallon of ethanol produced.

The "Keeping Maui green" editorial also slipped into one of the common misconceptions repeated over recent years-that only irrigated cane is preventing Maui's central valley from reverting to a dust bowl of the sort reported in the 1800s. That overlooks the tons of topsoil currently lost to windblown erosion when hundreds of acres are tilled at a time.

University of Hawai`i professor Lee Altenberg addressed that a decade ago, in response to The Maui News' eager reporter making the same claim.

"The natural state of the valley, was a thick dryland forest," Altenberg wrote. "In this forest, giant flightless ducks, nene, and other birds roamed among trees that grew nowhere else in the world.

"The Polynesians reduced this forest to a grassland by recurrent burning as a means to cultivate grass for thatches," Altenberg continued."But it was cattle that turned the valley into a dust bowl. Beginning in 1793, for a whole generation cattle had been let loose to run over Maui. Cattle, pigs, and goats turned virtually all of Hawai`i's dryland forest areas into dust. A Natural History of the Hawaiian Islands, edited by E. A. Kay, gives abundant details."

With the onset of the New Year, it's wise to examine the far-reaching effects of our actions. It is as essential to protect and restore the island's natural environment here in Maui as elsewhere on the planet-perhaps more so because of our isolation.

Choices made for our future should be done with foresight to the generations to come, and with respect to all beings that inhabit planet earth. "The future of Maui," our daily paper states, "can be a model of harmony-between individuals and between humans and nature."

Wise words, indeed.