Maui's northern coast would be one of three Hawaii areas studied as possibly being nationally significant sites to include in the National Park System, under the first bill formally introduced in Congress by U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz.
The Big Island's Ka'u Coast and the southeastern coast of Kauai also would be subjects of "special resource studies" by the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the country's National Park System. Hawaii has seven parks, sites and monuments within its oversight, including Haleakala National Park and Kalaupapa National Historical Park in Maui County.
In a Wednesday morning conference call, in which he was joined by representatives of several conservation organizations, Schatz said that expanding Hawaii's national parks would help improve the economy and enhance the quality of life in the islands.
The senator said that he wants the study to identify places that are culturally, biologically and historically significant "or just extraordinarily beautiful."
The study would involve community input, and he pledged to "listen very carefully to communities and what their priorities are."
Schatz emphasized that the bill was "the beginning of the process."
"I'm very excited to have community support," he said.
The senator said that more national parks in Hawaii would mean more visitor spending. He pointed out that, in 2011, the state's national parks generated $259 million in tourist spending.
When asked to be more specific about what was meant by Maui's northern coast, Schatz said he was referring to the Spreckelsville area.
Helen Nielsen, Schatz's Maui field representative, later said that the legislation was broadly looking at the island's north shore from Spreckelsville to Paia and beyond Hookipa. She pointed out that while many might think of Baldwin Beach Park as staying a "park forever . . . it's not, because it's privately owned (by Alexander & Baldwin)."
"The north shore community has been pushing for protection of a lot of areas along the north shore," she said.
The bill calls for determining the suitability and feasibility of designating sites for inclusion in the National Park System, but it also directs the Interior Department to consider "other alternatives for preservation, protection and interpretation of the site by federal, state or local governmental entities or private and nonprofit organizations."
Under the measure, called the Pacific Islands Parks Act of 2013, the Interior Department would estimate the cost of federal acquisition, development, interpretation, operation and maintenance of various alternatives considered in the study.
Aside from studying areas in Hawaii, the department also would study Midway Atoll, the Northern Mariana Islands and Palau.
"One of Hawaii's greatest resources is its globally unique mountains, forests, volcanoes, trails and wildlife," Schatz said. "Visitors from all over the world travel to Hawaii to experience not only the natural beauty but also the cultural and historical significance of our national parks, which has resulted in a significant contribution to our state's growing economy."
The senator said the proposed studies would be a "critical step in protecting natural resources, preserving history and culture in Hawaii and across the Pacific, and providing access to residents and visitors who want to share in Hawaii's breathtaking natural environment."
Schatz said his aim is that the legislation will "begin a conversation about what sites should become national parks, monuments, trails, preserves, memorials, historic sites and other public land designations."
Lea Hong, Hawaiian Islands state director for The Trust for Public Land, said in a prepared statement that "parks are a wise investment, supporting hunting, fishing, camping and other outdoor recreational activities that contribute a total of $725.5 billion annually to the U.S. economy, and 6.15 million jobs," according to the Outdoor Industry Association.
"More broadly, outdoor recreation, nature conservation and historic preservation contribute a total of $1.06 trillion annually to the economy, supporting 8.4 million jobs - or one out every 16 jobs in the U.S.," Hong said.
Schatz invited suggestions on potential park sites as well as feedback on what people want from their national park system and other public lands. Comments can be made by selecting "new parks" from the topics drop-down menu at www.schatz.senate.gov/contact.cfm.
* Brian Perry can be reached at email@example.com.