The former Ookala sugar mill, seen here, would be converted to a sawmill if Tradewinds Hawaiian Woods’ plan for eucalyptus logging on the Hamakua Coast comes to fruition.
Tradewinds Hawaiian Woods is seen here.
By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Long-stalled plans for commercial eucalyptus logging on the Hamakua Coast and a sawmill operation in Ookala are still in the works, according to the CEO of Tradewinds Hawaiian Woods.
Don Bryan told the Rotary Club of South Hilo on Sept. 17 that his company is hoping to start harvesting and milling operations sometime in 2014.
“We’re just starting to go through a series of permit applications,” Bryan told the Tribune-Herald later that day. He said the company hopes to have “local plantation woods for international and local sales” within a year. He said the timber would be “primarily eucalyptus but other exotic woods as well.”
A recent check found no grading or grubbing permit applications had been filed at the county’s Engineering Division.
Bryan said that there are about 40,000 acres of potential timberland, but that his company plans on harvesting “about 150 acres to start” and work up to about 300 acres a year.
Bryan said the operation would employ 35 workers at what he called “family wages.”
“I’m not ready to quote wage rates here, but they’re competitive with other jobs on the island, such as construction jobs,” he said. “We’re looking forward to finally having a chance to employ local people on the Hamakua Coast and work with our neighbors who are tree growers and be an active economic part of this community — sooner better than later.”
Bryan had been part of a decade-long effort to start eucalyptus harvesting timber operations on the Big Island including a sawmill at the former Ookala sugar mill site, as the point man for a company he has since parted ways with, Tradewinds Forest Products.
“This is a completely different company and has nothing to do with Tradewinds Forest Products,” Bryan said.
Bryan noted that the Hamakua lands are habitat for the Hawaiian hoary bat or ope‘ape‘a, a federally protected endangered species, but said he believes Hawaii’s only endemic land mammal won’t be impacted by logging.
“Any harvesting would have to take into account the needs of the hoary bat, what steps have to be taken to protect them, that’s what we’ll need to do,” he said. “Everything that happens, there’s a potential impact, but we see no negative impacts from any of that harvest.
“… The sense is that bats don’t have permanent roosting places and the bats don’t just live in eucalyptus trees, and they live in indigenous trees and they live under football stadiums and they’re kind of everywhere. It turns out that tree bats like to live along forest edges, so we think that harvesting trees creates no risk to bats.”
Bryan said the company would not need to do an environmental impact statement or environmental assessment to log on private Hamakua Coast land.
“When we harvest on state land, and we do have one license on state land, we always have to do an EA prior to selling any wood,” he said. “To the extent we are working on state lands, there would be an EA or an EIS, whatever the state deems appropriate, involved. But on private lands, there’s no EA or EIS called for, and we would work on both state and private lands.”
David Johnston, a wildlife ecologist for H.T. Harvey & Associates, studies the Hawaiian hoary bat, and said the Big Island has “a substantial breeding population.”
“I have not seen the site, so it’s a little difficult for me to respond (about the possible impacts of logging),” he said. “But I would say bats are picky about where they roost, and the Hawaiian hoary bat is a foliage roosting bat. It doesn’t roost in crevices. They prefer trees with dense overhanging foliage so they can simply drop out. That’s not to say that there hasn’t been a case of a Hawaiian hoary bat roosting in the seats of a stadium, but that would probably be because they were desperate and couldn’t find a tree. That would be highly unusual.”
Johnston also disputed Bryan’s assertion that an EIS or EA wouldn’t be necessary to cut on private property if the bats are present.
“Whether or not the bat would be impacted is not a question I can answer, but if there is a potential for the loss of individuals in species that are protected by the federal Endangered Species Act laws, or any federal law, it doesn’t matter if it is private land or public land,” he said. “Environmental laws are not restricted to public lands.”
The state timber license Bryan referred to is to harvest trees from 1,000 acres of the Waiakea Timber Management Area off Stainback Highway. State Division of Forestry and Wildlife Cooperative Resource Management Forester Sheri Mann said the license was part of Tradewinds’ purchase of Hawaii Island Hardwoods.
“There’s only five years left on that license,” Mann said on Monday. “There’s been an extension fee and we haven’t put in the pre-stumpage fee yet, but we plan to very soon. There’s a number of reasons. One of the roads is not passable for a large logging truck, so they’re not able to get to some of the prime woods. There’s about a thousand acres under that specific license, and a lot of it is in an upper area where the road is kind of washed out, so we’ve postponed their pre-stumpage fee payments for the time being.”
Mann said the state is working on an environmental assessment for the entire 12,000-acre WTMA.
“The draft EA should be done in six months or so,” she said.
Mann said that DOFAW surveys in the WTMA have “not detected any hoary bats, although they could be anywhere in the state.”
“They’re becoming a lot more prolific, and there’s been some talk of de-listing them because they’re not that rare anymore,” she said. “There are some plants and a drosophilus fly that are known in that area. They’re in the native tree area that is not included in the license for Tradewinds and won’t be included in any future license that we put out.”
The proposed sawmill in the old Ookala sugar mill became a rallying point in community opposition in the last decade to Tradewinds Forest Products’ plans to harvest eucalyptus from the WTMA and process it into veneer wood. The project would have brought jobs to the community but those plans were met by an outcry from organized neighbors who had moved in, not expecting the mill to be fired up again.
Beginning in 2004, the Land Board had modified Tradewinds Forest Products’ license six times, giving that company multiple chances to secure financing for the veneer mill. TFP insisted that a deal to finance the mill had been sunk by the collapse of the housing bubble and subsequent recession; others said it couldn’t attract capital because of a bad business model.
The company had paid the state $758,500 in fees by the time that timber license was terminated in August 2011.
“That was a completely different license agreement,” Mann pointed out. “It was for a lot more acreage and it was a completely different company, even though it’s got Tradewinds in the name.”
Bryan said there would likely be two shifts operating at the sawmill, once operations are up and running. He said noise would be limited at “70 decibels or lower” at the mill’s property lines.
“We’ll have to comply with good neighbor practices to make sure that we don’t disturb the neighbors,” he said.
Bryan also said that Tradewinds’ logging operations could also supply biomass to fuel the 21.5-megawatt Hu Honua power plant under construction near Pepeekeo.
“The residuals from our operation, which are the parts of the trees that don’t make flat boards, we would be supplying more likely than not,” he said. “There are no formal agreements, I expect we could sell those to Hu Honua to use for combustion, as well as any other trees we harvest that aren’t suitable for making fine hardwoods.”
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.