HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Hawaii's natural and cultural resources may be lacking adequate protection due to a shortage of conservation officers on the staff.
The Department of Land and Natural Resources is asking lawmakers for funding to develop a training academy to help ease the chronic staffing shortage.
The Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement (DOCARE) has roughly 130 positions for officers, but about 30 of them are vacant. The officers are armed and the job requires prior law enforcement experience.
"We're basically taking from HPD (Honolulu Police Department), MPD (Maui Police Department), and KPD (Kauai Police Department) to try to get them into our agency," explained Robert Farrell, DOCARE's enforcement chief.
The Department of Land and Natural Resources wants to create its own training academy for people who want to work in the conservation field, but don't have the law enforcement background.
"This will help us solve that problem, from just trying to take employees from other jurisdictions which oftentimes pay more, so we're unsure of what their motivation is for coming to us," said Farrell.
The agency has teamed up with the University of Hawaii at Manoa's William S. Richardson School of Law. The law school secured a $148,000 grant from the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation. The money is being used to develop the design and curriculum. The DLNR is now asking lawmakers for $500,000 to start up the academy.
"We're hoping 20 to 30 cadets will be enrolled in the academy. They would go through probably a months-long training process which would be both academic and in the field -- firearms training, emergency response," said UH professor Denise Antolini. "I think it will be a game changer for DOCARE and for DLNR because it really opens up job opportunities and workforce training that doesn't exist right now," she said.
Supporters believe the department desperately needs the funding.
"We see it every day here in Hawaii where our resources are hurting, but there's no enforcement arm because we just do not have enough DOCARE officers," said Tiare Lawrence, a community organizer for the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action.
If the funding is approved, Antolini said the academy would likely be at a community college and could open as early as next year.
The DLNR also wants to establish a central call center to improve its response to potential violations. Tips would be immediately relayed to officers, even at night and on weekends.