Saturday, April 26, 2008

Musings: Life on Lanai

Got back late last night from three days on Lanai that were blissful in part because the computer was not part of them, and I barely used my cell phone, too. But my pen kept busy taking notes. It’s nice to return to that low-tech world sometimes.

Was interested to see that Hawaiian has moved into Aloha territory in the interisland terminal in Honolulu, using some of their gates, and they’ve greatly increased the number of flights to Kauai. I got in about 10:30 p.m. — we never used to be able to fly that late.

Was struck again by the different style of tourism on Lanai. They get day-trippers who take the ferry over from Lahaina — 45 minutes each way — to golf or hang at Hulopoe beach because it’s not so crowded as the sands of west Maui, and a lot of corporate travel. Most of it comes in on commercial flights, but there was a large private jet parked at the airport.

The shuttle driver told me that Microsoft was bringing in about 500 people next month, and the two big hotels were pretty much booked full through the next couple of months. Most of the tourists don’t rent cars — Castle and Cooke operates a shuttle — and they walk around Lanai City — the only place outside the resorts where you can spend money — to shop and eat, keeping the little business center there fairly busy.

And then you have the hunters. The DLNR guy there told me the state leases about 30,000 acres from Castle and Cooke for hunting, and he issues about 180 to 200 permits each weekend to hunters, most of them Hawaii residents. About 30 percent bag a deer, Mouflon sheep or bird, depending on the season. They don’t have any pigs, and the goats were eradicated a while back because they used to eat the young pineapple plants.

The pineapple is gone, too, and all those fields are now largely overgrown with guinea and molasses grass — with layer upon layer of black plastic buried in the soil beneath, slowly leaching their toxins into the earth and onto the sea. This chemical residue and years of intensive mono-cropping — pineapple is a very heavy feeder — makes it hard to raise animals, or anything else on the land, because even though there’s a lot of grass, it’s depleted and low in nutrients. There’s a lot of potential for ag, though, if they do some soil remediation with cover crops.

Also looked down into Maunalei, one of the sweetest little valleys I’ve seen in Hawaii. It’s deep and narrow, with kukui trees growing in a stream bed totally devoid of water. I wondered what had happened to it, and found out when I happily met up with Kepa Maly, who I worked with years ago in 1000 Friends of Kauai. He’s now sharing his considerable manao with the lucky folks who drop by the delightful Lanai Culture & Heritage Center and is featured in the current issue of Hawaiian Airlines magazine, Hana Hou.

Anyway, Kepa told me Hawaiians used to farm taro in that valley, but the stream that fed the loi was completely diverted to support a sugar plantation that failed in just three years. Such a loss, and it’s the irreplaceable kind, too.

Also visited Keahiakawelo (Garden of the Gods), a surrealistic spot with unique geological features that is one of the most significant traditional landscapes on Lanai. It’s also the place where Castle and Cooke is trying to build a 300 mw wind farm, with the power going to Oahu. Even though Lanai folks pay even higher electric rates than we do, they weren’t going to get any of that juice because the company said it was too expensive to send it over to Lanai City. But no problem transporting it under the channel to Oahu.

Aside from the issue of process — the company is pushing legislation that would exempt alternative energy projects from full regulatory review — the project raises the question of just how much we’re willing to deface and destroy for what could very well turn out to be a failed commercial enterprise. You know, like the sugar plantation that wiped out the fresh water ecosystem in Maunalei. Seems like we’re slow learners, us humans. Or maybe we’re too easily distracted by money.

Although tourism, which is a large part of Lanai’s economy, seems to be perking along pretty well, sales of new luxury second homes have slacked way off, and Castle and Cook, which is developing the housing, laid off about 40 guys just recently. That’s a big deal in that little community, especially because the company rents housing to its workers. So no more job means no more house. If they want to stay on Lanai, they have to either move in with relatives or rent something on the open market, and rentals are both scarce and expensive.

Yes, Lanai is suffering from the same syndrome that’s hit Kauai as outsiders with money move in and displace the locals, who really don't have anyplace else to go. Many of the newcomers and part-timers live in the luxury housing around the resorts, but some are buying places in town, where $400,000 can get you a tiny old termite-ridden plantation house, which is then replaced with something much more lavish.

I was shown what the locals call “Tinkerbell’s castle,” a sprawling two-story monstrosity under construction in a neighborhood of very modest houses that are certainly no larger than 1,200 square feet. Apparently the owners don’t care if they stick out like a sore thumb.

Anyway, it was fascinating to get a closer look at life on Lanai. Each island is so different, yet we share so many of the same issues and concerns. While I love Lanai, with its wide open spaces, friendly people and low-key lifestyle, it's great to be home on beautiful Kauai, and Koko and I were both very glad to be reunited.

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