The Market for Open Spaces

Hawaii Nature Conservatory

By Joe Kent

One day I was leaving a county council meeting on Maui, and I got in the elevator with a group of older ladies. I pretended to ignore them while I listened intently.

“Can you believe it? We did it! We got the government to buy the land!”

“Thank goodness,” another lady said, “I was afraid the view of the ocean would be blocked from my house.”

“Well,” the leader said, “I heard that a developer is planning on buying some land up north. We’d better hop to it again, ladies!” They all cheered.

I kept my mouth shut and wondered: why is the government always seen as the protector of the land?

After all, much of the open spaces in Hawaii are privately owned. Yes, it’s true that about two million acres of Hawaii are owned by the State and National government. But one million acres of open land in Hawaii are owned privately.

The entire island of Ni’ihau is privately owned by the Robinson family. Nicknamed “the forbidden island”, Ni’ihau still looks almost the same as it did 200 years ago – proof that private individuals can preserve the land if they own the property.

Larry Ellison, the third richest man in the world, owns 98% of the island of Lana’i, yet the island remains largely a wide open space.

In fact, most of the privately owned land in Hawaii is open-space, undeveloped land.

The Nature Conservancy, a privately funded charity, raised millions of dollars to buy over 200,000 acres of land in Hawaii for the purposes of preservation and open space. Free market conservation charities can only raise money if lots of people think it’s a good idea. Other private charities like the Lahaina Restoration Foundation, Historic Hawaii Foundation, and the Hawaiian Islands Land Trust work to raise money to purchase land for preservation.

In the meantime, government buys up land that people aren’t willing to raise money to preserve. Yet, they often pay double what the land costs. When the Maui County Council voted to purchase the land at Laniupoko for 13 million dollars, Councilman Mike White reminded everybody that on the free market, they could have gotten it for less than half the cost. The land owner jacked up the price as soon as they found out the government was buying it.

Many argue that in the free-market, nobody would ever buy land and keep it open-spaced. Yet, there are over 1 million acres of privately owned open space land in  Hawaii. Most of that land will continue to be preserved because the individual land owners and charities are interested in keeping the land natural. Let’s not forget that most of the land that the government owns is the rocky cliffs and volcanoes that would be difficult to develop anyways. But most of the land that private individuals own in Hawaii is prime land for development – yet it’s been preserved for hundreds of years because of personal choice, charity, and property rights.

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One thought on “The Market for Open Spaces

  1. I’m not in favor of the ideology of preservation but true conservation is what we should be working towards. While there are many organizations that are saying that they are protecting the land through preservation those lands do very little to improve the quality of life for the people living near them.

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