Big Island's Kūka‘iau Ranch Protected from Future Development
Conservation easement protects upper 4,500 acres of historic ranch
Josephine and David DeLuz
A Hawai‘i Island ranch family that wants to preserve the rural character of the Hāmākua Coast has donated a conservation easement on 4,500 acres of its property to The Nature Conservancy.
David and Josephine DeLuz have owned and operated the 10,200-acre Kūka‘iau Ranch for the past 15 years. But the DeLuzes, who are nearing 80, were concerned about what might happen to their ranch once they pass on.
“We realized that if we didn’t move to protect the ranch now, it could be divided up and sold off for development,” David DeLuz said. “And then it wouldn’t be a ranch anymore. It would be a residential area.”
Kūka‘iau’s agricultural zoning designation allows the ranch to be divided up into 40-acre lots and sold, with one house built on each lot. By placing a conservation easement on 4,500 acres, the DeLuzes have ensured that the land can never be broken up and developed, even if it is eventually sold. It’s the first step in their larger vision to use conservation easements to protect the entire 10,200-acre property.
“Kūka‘iau is a historic ranch,” Josephine DeLuz said. “It’s been a fixture on the Hāmākua Coast for more than 125 years. It’s a place that should be conserved.”
Under terms of the agreement, negotiated with The Nature Conservancy and the Hawai‘i Island Land Trust, the DeLuzes will retain ownership of the land while the Conservancy will monitor and enforce the easement.
John Henshaw, the Conservancy’s director of conservation programs, said the 4,500-acre easement covers the uppermost portions of the ranch, which rise to 8,400 feet elevation and have the greatest conservation value. “About one-quarter of the lands under easement will be managed strictly for conservation,” he said. “The remainder will be restricted to sustainable agriculture and forestry activities with no residential development.”
Located above the Hāmākua Coast on the northeast slopes of Mauna Kea, the ranch comprises the upper portion of the ahupua‘a of Koholālele and Kūka‘iau, whose streams start at the top of the property and flow to the ocean.
The upper levels of this watershed are critical to the groundwater recharge, and the area’s conservation value is substantially enhanced by its connection to the Mauna Kea Forest Reserve and a 5,142-acre mitigation area for the palila, an endangered Hawaiian forest bird.
The land under easement has two dominant tree species, māmane and koa, a variety of native plants, and several species of native birds. The endangered Hawaiian hawk (‘io) is frequently seen hunting on ranch lands, and remnant populations of the palila include the ranch within their home range. The land also contains important cultural sites.
“As landowners, David and Josephine DeLuz understand that large ranches provide a conservation benefit by providing habitat for a wide range of species,” said Henshaw. “They also understand that ranch owners have a responsibility to preserve the special cultural and biological areas on their ranch. And that’s basically what they’re doing.”
Doug Sensenig, executive director of the Hawai‘i Island Land Trust, said the Kūka‘iau agreement marks the first time a Big Island rancher has donated a conservation easement of such size.
“The DeLuzes have put an enormous amount of research and time into making this a model conservation agreement. We hope it can be used by other ranchers on the Big Island as a starting point for discussion of how they might protect their family’s ranching legacy,” he added.
Kūka‘iau Ranch was founded in 1883 and remains one of the islands’ oldest working ranches. Historically, it was one of the most diversified and sustainable ranches in the state, containing a feedlot, meat processing facility, dairy and orchards that supplied fruits and vegetables.
Over the past century, however, unsustainable tree harvesting, numerous fires and continuous grazing have caused erosion problems, loss of stream flow and destruction of native plant seedlings. As a result, established forested land is now less than 2,500 acres, and invasive species continue to put the remaining Kūka‘iau ecosystem at risk.
The DeLuz’s vision is to return the ranch to its former productivity and protect important areas for their historic and ecological value. “The family’s goal is to prove that working ranches can be profitable agricultural centers, while at the same time providing protection of watershed, species and cultural resources,” Josephine DeLuz said.
In the coming year, the DeLuzes will work with the Conservancy, Hawai‘i Island Land Trust and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to develop a management plan that will guide conservation and reforestation efforts on the ranch. Those plans will likely include fencing, removal of pigs and goats, and restoration of native plant species. According to Henshaw, Kūka‘iau’s conservation lands will also be included in the newly forming Mauna Kea Watershed Alliance.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.