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Sierra Magazine
Lay of the Land

Mississippi Mud | WANTED:Warren Anderson | Killer Trout | Click & Clack | Hawaiian Tourism | Global Climate Coaltion | Winter Quiet

Too Much of a Good Thing?
Hawaii activists challenge new tourism promotion

by Joan Conrow

It's easy to see the immediate environmental havoc that tourist facilities can wreak: mega-resorts sprouting up next to once-pristine beaches, golf courses sucking up scarce water resources, airports paving over wildlands for new runways. The cumulative impact of nearly 7 million vacationers converging on the Hawaiian Islands each year must be even greater-but no one has ever bothered to find out how much. How many gallons of water are tourists using? How much trash and pollution are they producing? How many can visit before they destroy the very beauty they came to see?

Similar questions have been raised-and left largely unanswered-in the Florida Keys, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Nepal, Costa Rica, and other scenic destinations. Where tourism fuels the local economy (in Hawaii, it accounts for one-third of all jobs and one-quarter of the gross state product), politicians tend to be unwilling to probe too deeply into its impacts. But when the state moved to spend $117 million over three years to promote tourism, the Sierra Club's Hawaii Chapter challenged the sacred cow.

The Club filed a lawsuit in January in state Supreme Court, contending that by failing to assess the impacts of its marketing program, the Hawaii Tourism Authority violated Hawaiian law, which requires an environmental analysis before spending public funds. The suit argues that the marketing campaign will attract at least one million additional tourists, harming nature and degrading residents' quality of life, effects that should be calculated and publicly reviewed. "We're hoping to find out how many tourists Hawaii can handle," says Chapter Chair David Kimo Frankel.

Visitor-industry officials greeted the legal action with derision and disbelief. "An environmental study on the effects of promoting Hawaii's principal economy? I think that's ridiculous," says Robert Fishman, chief executive officer of the tourism authority. But Sierra Club attorney Isaac Hall says the lawsuit could open the door for similar challenges elsewhere. While environmental-protection laws have long been used to stop individual development proposals, their application to economic programs is relatively new.

The lawsuit has provoked a mixed reaction from small-business owners: some denounce it, while others admit that the tourist infrastructure is already overwhelming the natural beauty that visitors come to see. Nearly three-quarters of Hawaii's residents oppose new hotel construction. On Molokai, protesters have vandalized pipelines that would divert water from farms to hotels. Honolulu sharply restricted use of Hanauma Bay after finding that visitors were trampling coral reefs and that their suntan oil and cigarette butts were degrading water quality in the popular snorkeling spot. Meanwhile, the state is scrambling to adopt new rules aimed at minimizing ecological damage caused by an explosion of kayaking and hiking tours.

But the tourists keep coming. Sierra Club activists point out that the Hawaii Tourism Authority is exempt from taxation and the state procurement process. "It's an industry-dominated agency and the public is left out in the cold," says Hawaii Chapter Director Jeffrey Mikulina.

Industry-friendly lawmakers responded to the Club's suit by introducing two bills, one seeking to partially exempt the Tourism Authority from the state law requiring environment-impact statements, and another that would exclude marketing and other "nonphysical" expenditures from environmental review. The bills failed, but opponents at the capitol and in the media continue to blast the Sierra Club for questioning the effects of tourism. "With some politicians, it's like attacking motherhood," Frankel says. "They just can't see any value in what we're trying to do." If they don't see it soon, there will be a resort on every beach and a T-shirt shop under every palm tree-and the tourists will move on to the next "unspoiled" destination.

And Then There Were None?

by Reed McManus

The Global Climate Coalition, which calls itself "a voice for business in the global warming debate" is running out of choir members. In March, General Motors became the last of the Big Three automakers to abandon the trade group, whose public-relations campaigns are designed to cast doubts on evidence that the earth is getting hotter because of the buildup of carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere. Other evacuees include BP Amoco, Shell, Texaco, Dow Chemical, and The Southern Company, one of the nation's largest energy suppliers.
The coalition's response? GCC Executive Director Glenn Kelly said his group is "restructuring" and will no longer "allow" individual corporations to join. Instead, membership will be limited to trade associations.

Winter Quiet, Summer Calm

With luck, next time you visit a national park, you'll hear chirping birds rather than roaring engines. In April, the National Park Service cracked down on snowmobile use in more than two dozen parks, and banned "personal watercraft" (a.k.a. jet-skis) in many areas of the park system.

"Snowmobiles are noisy, antiquated machines that are no longer welcome in our parks," said Assistant Interior Secretary Donald Barry. The announcement came after the Earth Island Institute's Bluewater Network charged that the Park Service was neither monitoring snowmobiles' effects nor enforcing its own rules. According to Bluewater, 60,000 snowmobiles enter Yellowstone each year, expelling 13.8 million pounds of hydrocarbons-dwarfing the emissions from automobiles in the park.

Exempt from the ban are Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota, where along with Denali and 11 other parks in Alaska, snowmobiling is explicitly permitted by law. Snowmobiling can also continue in Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks, but a ban or phase-out is expected as early as this fall.

The jet-ski ban could make summers quiet in the parks, too. Jet-ski use is "generally prohibited," but the Park Service exempted 11 popular park units for up to two years. And in ten national recreation areas, the local park superintendent has the authority to decide whether to allow jet-skis. Marc Koenings, superintendent of Assateague Island National Seashore, has already banned jet-skis there, saying that the machines are "at odds with why the Park Service was established." It's the kind of definitive move that prompts a refreshing hush.-R.M.

Lay of the Land | 1, 2, 3, 4

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