The HTA Versus the Sierra Club

A case before the State Supreme court could have profound effects on how state officials develop Hawaii’s tourist industry

March, 2001

It started out as a seemingly outlandish lawsuit, called a publicity stunt by some and much worse by others. Early last year, the Hawaii chapter of the Sierra Club filed a petition with the Hawaii Supreme Court asking the Hawaii Tourism Authority, with an annual budget of $60 million, to suspend its tourism marketing efforts until it has prepared an environmental assessment of the impacts that the visitor industry has on the Islands. In October of 2000, lawyers from both sides squared off in court and argued their points in a case that could have profound effects on how state officials develop its tourist industry.

At press time, the court had not reached an opinion. And there is no deadline for it to hand one down.

According to Mikulina, the basic principles of his organization’s lawsuit are simple: Government agencies are routinely asked to consider the environmental actions before they act. The HTA’s marketing campaign is intended to increase growth. Mikulina points to a number of the state’s overrun hiking trails as an example of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. (According to a recent survey of a select number of its hiking trails throughout the Islands, the Department of Land and Natural Resources found that 78 percent of hikers on island trails were visitors.)
“You have a new organization, with a huge budget, which is supposed to be doing comprehensive planning and all they are doing is spending money to get them here,” says Jeffrey Mikulina, executive director, Hawaii chapter of the Sierra Club. “What’s going to happen when the 30,000 more tourists come here a day as they are projecting in 2005? What will that mean and where will they go?”

“We aren’t talking about clear cutting or mining,” says Mikulina. “This is tourism and we should be sharing the work. They should be with us every step of the way.”

But the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s Chief Executive Officer, Bob Fishman, believes that Mikulina’s interpretation of state law is too broad. Fishman agrees that the legislature should give the Department of Land and Natural Resources all the money it needs to fulfill its mission. His organization is not in the environmental policy business.

“To say that there is an inherent environmental responsibility in the marketing of tourism is a bit of a stretch, “ says Fishman. “We could make the case that every program should have those responsibilities. Recruiting teachers for the mainland, for example, or a government trip to the Far East. Both of those could potentially increase the amount of visitors or residents to the state and therefore would require an EIS (environmental impact statement).”

But the issue may be moot by the time the court hands down its decision. According to HTA board member Millie Kim, a study to measure the state’s tourism carrying capacity is in the works, and the organization is examining ways in which it can aid other state agencies in managing Hawaii’s natural resources. For example, according to Kim, the HTA is exploring way in which it can hire private security firms to help police Hawaii’s busiest hiking trails.

“Today, we have a new kind of tourist, about 50 percent of them are repeat visitors,” says Kim. “And on average those people are on their fifth or sixth visit. They are exploring and going to places that visitors never went to before.”

Kim believs that there are many people in the tourist industry who are on the same page as the Sierra Club and that its lawsuit was perhaps a little premature.

“I really think that we are moving in the same direction,” says Kim. “We may not be moving fast enough for some, but I think we will still get there nonetheless.”

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David K. Choo