LEGAL: Trashing Paradise

The Sierra Club seems bent on saving Hawaii from tourists - and the garbage they generate. Of course, some might say that Hawaii is defined by tourism. Still, the environmental organization doesn't let a little irony stand in its way.

As the group perhaps sees it, the trouble with Hawaii tourism is that each year the 7 million visitors - give or take a few hundred thousand - insist on taking themselves along. They do outrageous things like drink water, use electricity, visit beaches and, worst of all, generate garbage.

To force the Hawaii Tourism Authority to confront environmental degradation and to forestall the transfer of nearly $115 million in state funds to the visitors and convention bureau, the Sierra Club filed suit in the Hawaii Supreme Court.

If the organization gets its way, the court will order tourism officials to conduct a statewide environmental assessment, which, the Sierra Club alleges, is required by law. As the argument goes, tourism officials cannot spend state funds for marketing and promotion without first formally studying how visitors generate garbage and otherwise spoil the environment.

"An environmental assessment would tell us whether Hawaii's ... infrastructure can handle more tourists," says the director of the organization's Hawaii chapter.

The chief executive of the tourism authority scoffs at the suit, calling it "a patently ridiculous and inappropriate" interpretation of the law. Land use, construction and excavations deserve environmental assessments, he says.

For their part, tourism-sensitive state lawmakers have introduced a bill to clarify that tourism is not among the activities requiring an environmental impact study.

Meanwhile, tourism and travel industry representatives elsewhere are worried. "If the state of Hawaii loses this lawsuit, it could set a precedent for blocking other states ... as well as county and local entities from promoting tourism," says Nevada Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt.

An alliance of travel and tourism organizations, including the Western States Tourism Policy Council, the Travel Industry Association of America, the American Hotel and Motel Association and the National Council of State Tourism Directors, unsuccessfully attempted to file a friend-of-the-court brief in the case on behalf of the Hawaii Tourism Authority. A lawyer for the industry coalition says the group was "concerned that if [the Sierra Club petition] was upheld, states' tourism efforts could get bogged down." Surprisingly, a similar request to intervene by the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, whose work could be sharply curtailed by an adverse ruling, suffered the same fate.

The lawsuit takes on a somewhat disingenuous flavor if one considers that for nearly a century, the national Sierra Club organization has run an Outings Program, which, last year, sponsored seven tours to Hawaii among hundreds of far-flung treks and expeditions it promoted. In fact, the Sierra Club plans even more tours to Hawaii this year.

About a year ago, the state tourism authority introduced a plan to encourage visitors to extend their stays on the islands by offering more events and activities, particularly hiking and other eco-friendly outdoor pursuits.

The lawsuit amounts to a vote of confidence for the authority's likely success in increasing the number of visitors to the islands during the next five years. Indeed, the court papers cite a 1997 advertising campaign that resulted in nearly a half million additional visitors from the mainland and more than 300,000 from Japan. The Sierra Club worries that the authority will have the same luck with the proposed new expenditures, which, the suit alleges, "will result in like increases." However, the suit stops short of quantifying the amount of garbage and other evils that the increased number of tourists will produce.

An economic slump in the United States through the mid-1990s, together with a weakened economy in Asia thereafter, contributed to lingering stagnation and even decline in visitors to Hawaii, according to a 1999 report from the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

The Sierra Club insists that the lawsuit actually serves the best interests of the state. "If the Hawaii Tourism Authority agrees that the natural environment is what makes Hawaii so attractive, then they should have no problem with preparing an environmental assessment so that any adverse impact could be prevented or minimized," the Hawaii chapter director told The New York Times. "If the assessment finds there would be no harm to the environment under their plan, we would have no problem with it," he added.

The Sierra Club seems to believe that it can fully book its Hawaii tours this year without any promotional help from the state. Perhaps it also believes that providing "ordinary" tourists with as little information and encouragement as possible about Hawaii can be an effective waste minimization strategy.