The Not So Great Mahele

Part of what hold Hawaii back on is the conflicted nature of land ownership and use.  On the US mainland the majority land that was made available for settlement after the War of Independence was parceled out in large sections and had clear lines of ownership.

In Hawaii land use was muddied by the intrusion of royal prerogative and a failed attempt to convert a semi-feudal tenant system into one of broad-based private ownership.

Prior to a united Hawaiian Kingdom land on each island was often redistributed following the death of an island king (Ali’i nui or Moi) to different Ali’i (high born subjects) as the new ruler saw fit.

At the death of Kamehameha the Great this changed as the idea of creating a hereditary royal estate and not re-distributing the land took hold among the surviving royal family.

The Great Mahele and related Kuleana Homestead Act was an attempt by King Kamehameha III and his advisors to give title of 1/3 of the land to the general population of commoners, 1/3 of the land for high born subjects and reserved 1/3 of the land for the kingdom.

The land acquisition for the high born Ali’i worked quite well being the prior centuries of feudal dominion gave them a better understanding of the value of land and its ability to produce wealth by its tenant occupants.

But, the common people (the Maka ainana) had lived through generations of feudalism and were given inadequate, if any, preparation for the transition from tenant to landowner and could not fully grasp its importance.

The handful of commoners who gained ownership was nowhere near what was needed to have a population-based occupancy of fee simple landowners.

The empty land proved too much to sustain for the majority of Ali’i and foreign land purchase and influence eventually came to dominate Hawaii.

While they may seem a long time ago the results are still with us today.

The Hawaiian islands, particularly on Oahu have to deal with a multitude of large landowners, even controlling areas on Oahu’s mountain chains that could only be considered wilderness in perpetuity.


It would be difficult to find anything like this in any other similar sized US metropolitan area.

Major recreational opportunity from parkland, to forest and mountain access are off-limits leaving Oahu feeling confined and restricted as so much of its open space is officially closed-off leaving that which is still open overused.

It also may explain why there is no interconnection with urban planning and a coherent drive for more parkland and open space access.

North Halawa Valley under the H-3 seems ready and waiting to be new urban parkland following an already existing service road.

Real estate brochures for Hawaii Kai show the decaying and unmaintained tramway-trail going up Koko Crater as if it were part of a coherent trail system while the entire east side of Oahu is surrounded by a mountain wilderness largely cut off from public use by Bishop Estates.

This conflicted responsibility dominates Hawaii and leads not just to poor planning but no planning at all as access is closed or new ones pop up with areas receiving hundreds of visitors a day with no parking, no restrooms, no trash collection or environmental maintenance.

Oahu has considerably more open space and potential then what is implied by the constant drumbeat of diminishing possibilities.

Changing this dynamic rest on instituting far better stewardship for the natural and manmade resources Oahu is gifted with than is presently being achieved.



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