Hawaii Historic Preservation Agency Could Lose Certification, Funding

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The state agency charged with safeguarding Hawaii's historic and archeological treasures is in such disarray that the federal government is threatening to revoke its certification and funding.

That could in turn hold up billions of dollars in state projects, including the Honolulu rail project, government officials say.

The National Park Service last week sent a warning letter to the head of Hawaii's Historic Preservation Division saying that the division isn't doing enough to address major operational problems that federal officials identified more than a year ago. As a result, the division risks losing its federal certification and one-quarter of its budget.

“We remain concerned that, irrespective of any other factors, without sufficient staffing and adequate retention programs, the (Historic Preservation Division) will not be able to satisfy the corrective actions to create a sustainable statewide historic preservation program within the schedule established for the (corrective action plan),” wrote Stephanie Toothman, an associate director for the National Park Service.

The division has struggled for years to fulfill its duties. It currently has a backlog of more than 400 permits and reports. Vital staff positions are unfilled. The division has been slow to digitize its records and has come under criticism in the past for its poor handling of Native Hawaiian remains.

In 2010, federal officials stepped in and slapped the department with a "corrective action plan" requiring the division to fix problems by 2012.

Jon Smith, an assistant director at the National Park Service, said Hawaii is the first state to ever be issued a corrective action plan, and the only state to be at risk of losing its certification.

But Smith said he hoped that the actions by the federal agency wouldn’t be seen as something that was punitive or “terribly negative.” He said he was optimistic that the state would meet the mandates.

“There is so much that is positive coming out of this,” he said. “There are very good and very, very dedicated staff at the (Hawaii) office.”

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