Historic preservation agency still working to keep federal funds

William Aila, chair of the Department of Land and Natural Resources
William Aila, chair of the Department of Land and Natural Resources

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The federal government says a state agency in charge of overseeing historic sites in Hawaii has made progress, but is still falling short in fixing problems, including hiring enough staff to keep up with its duties.

The state Historic Preservation Division oversees historic and other sites of interest, ranging from Iolani Palace and Washington Place to ancient heiau to military installations, like Pearl Harbor, where historic events occurred.

"All of these properties are now eligible to be listed for historic preservation," said William Aila, chair of the Department of Land and Natural Resources. "Therefore anything, any construction activity, any clearing activity, all has to be reviewed by the department."

The division, which is part of the DLNR, does all those reviews. It also gets involved in any construction that involves the movement of soil or a grading permit. "Anything that requires excavation because of the burial issues, because of possible historic sites being buried, all come under our purview," Aila said.

That includes the city's $5.7 billion rail transit project now underway. Digging for possible archaeological sites was part of the initial phase of the project.

But budget cuts have resulted in a smaller staff that has been unable to keep up with the workload. In a letter dated April 19, Stephanie Toothman, the associate director for cultural resources with the National Park Service, said "We have serious concerns that substantive progress has not yet been made in other areas including the hiring of adequate professional and administrative staff needed for the SHPD to function successfully."

Aila said last year's legislature approved money to hire eight more people for the division, and that four of those positions have been filed. However, those hired have to have at least a master's degree in archaeology.

"In addition, we require two years of archaeological work in Hawaii because of the burial issues, because of the specific Hawaiian cultural issues, so there's a small pool of people in Hawaii who can meet those qualifications," said Aila.

He added that the additional staff and a contractor hired by the DLNR have been able to reduce the division's work backlog by 70 percent.

Another problem cited by the National Park Service was the division's disorganized inventory of surveyed properties, and the fact that it's still in paper form. If you want to look up data on properties, inventory forms or designs, you have to go in person to the division office in Kapolei, where the data is stored in boxes, folders and filing cabinets.

"We have a library, and unfortunately you have to go to that library and manually look up things," Aila said. "We have plans to digitize that information and make it available to the public."


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