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person putting a document into a scanner
Madeline Smith scanning a historical document on Hawaiʻi‘s environmental history.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not stopping a project aiming to save 40 years of environmental history in Hawaiʻi.

The Environmental Center at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa was established in 1970 and generated a large collection of historical material on land use, conservation, economic development and ecological change in the state. Many of the documents are one-of-a-kind and exist only in hardcopy. They include drawings from Honolulu’s Rapid Transit Project from 1971 and a variety of environmental impact statements (EISs). The center closed in 2013 and the collection was left untouched.

three diagrams showing different monorail models
Sketch of proposed rail types from Honolulu’s Rapid Transit proposal in 1971.

In 2018, Associate Professor Kieko Matteson from UH Mānoa’s Department of History, and Scott Glenn, then-director of the State Office of Environmental Quality Control (OEQC), kickstarted an effort to digitize the documents and make them publicly available. Sara Bolduc, a PhD graduate from UH Mānoa’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning and former Environmental Center employee, also joined in the effort.

“There are essentially two goals, one is the goal of preservation, to make sure that regardless of what happens to the physical copies, we have a digital version,” Matteson said. “The other is to make the environmental impact statements that we are digitizing widely available to everyone for research.”

With the help of four student assistants over the past two years, the team has catalogued and processed more than a third of the 1,400 EISs in the center’s collection. The EISs shed light on important environmental issues in the state, such as sea-level rise in Waikīkī and the protection of the Hawaiian monk seal, one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world.

COVID-19 challenges

photo of cover of Aloha Tower Plaza Development Plan
Cover of Aloha Tower development plan from the early 1980s.

Many of the documents are themselves “endangered,” in that they are the only existing copies and are disintegrating from age. To digitize the materials, which vary widely in size and condition, Matteson and Bolduc formed a partnership with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) Hale Noelo Research and Technology Center, which granted the student assistants use of an oversize document scanner and computers. However, due COVID-19 restrictions, the facility temporarily closed in March, and reopening plans remain uncertain.

Fortunately, the students had scanned a large number of documents before the pandemic, so they were able to compile and catalogue them from home throughout the spring and summer. The Department of History has since stepped up to provide access to its own scanner and a computer so that the project can continue.

Additional partnerships

Partnerships have been key to the project from the start. In addition to OHA, the Department of History, and the OEQC, which helped launch the project with combined grants of $20,000 in 2018–19, the project is collaborating with the Hawaiian and Pacific Collection at UH Mānoa’s Hamilton Library, where many of the physical copies of the EISs will eventually be housed. The project has also received logistical and financial support through a $15,000 grant from the Water Resources Research Center, which will keep the project going through 2021.

View the documents

binders and papers on shelves in a room
Historical documents housed in the Environmental Center

The documents that have been scanned and catalogued so far are available for viewing on OEQC’s website. They offer insight into the vast range of development initiatives in the state since the 1970s and reveal how environmental decision-making has affected Hawaiʻi’s land, water, flora and fauna.

“There hasn’t really been one good way to get at the policy changes over the last 50 years,” Matteson said. “This is one way to provide that information.”

—By Marc Arakaki

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