Unlocking the Potential of the Public Land Trust
A Path to Empower Native Hawaiians
by Keli‘i Akina, Ka Wai Ola, October 1, 2023
As I reflect upon the goal of bettering the conditions of Native Hawaiians, one glaring need emerges above all: the necessity for increased financial resources.
With adequate funding, the Hawaiian people can make significant strides in housing, economic development, education, and healthcare. For example, the recent tragic burning of Lahaina, while incurring human and spiritual costs, underscores the importance of financial capital in restoring what was lost and forging a brighter, sustainable future.
That is why it is so important for Hawaiians to understand what the Public Land Trust (PLT) is, and why it may hold the key to transforming our conditions.
Comprising approximately 98% of the State of Hawai‘i’s property, the PLT spans an impressive 1.7 million acres. Following the Republic of Hawai‘i’s annexation by the United States, these lands were transferred to the federal government.
In 1959, the federal government relinquished title to most of these lands to the State of Hawai‘i, designating the lands with a “special trust status.”
The pivotal fact to keep in mind is that the Hawaiian people are entitled to receive 20% of the income and proceeds that are generated from the PLT.
According to the Hawai‘i State Constitution, these revenues are to be provided for Hawaiians through the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA). This is commonly referred to as OHA’s 20% pro rata share of the PLT.
A significant obstacle to realizing the PLT’s purpose has been the lack of a full accounting of these lands. Both the state and federal governments are legally obligated to conduct this accounting, yet it has never occurred.
Consequently, Hawaiians have never received their full constitutionally entitled portion of PLT revenues despite OHA’s tireless efforts to ensure that the federal and state government comply with the law.
An accounting would result in an accurate distribution of the funds that OHA is legally entitled to receive. It is estimated that OHA’s 20% pro rata share of the PLT amounts to approximately $79 million per year or more. In contrast, Hawaiians receive a mere fraction of that.
Moving forward, there may be a glimmer of hope in the form of a legal precedent set by the Cobell v. Salazar case in 2009.
This landmark case addressed the federal government’s duty to account for native trust lands. Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest took legal action against the United States for the “mismanagement of Indian trust funds,” asserting that the federal government had failed to fulfill its obligations to account for these lands.
The outcome was a clear message: governments must be held accountable for their fiduciary responsibilities regarding native trust lands. The Cobell case could provide a template for ensuring that the legal obligations concerning the PLT accounting are met. If successfully applied, it might compel both the state and federal governments to promptly fulfill their fiduciary duties.
The time for action is now. The benefits of accounting for the Public Land Trust are too substantial to overlook.
Native Hawaiians deserve access to affordable housing, economic opportunities, education, improved healthcare, and relief from the high cost of living. The lessons from the Cobell case illuminate a potential path forward.
It is time for both the state and federal government to honor their legal commitments and enable OHA to fulfill its mission of bettering the conditions of Native Hawaiians.