How Many Hawaiian Islands Are Privately Owned?

Hawaii’s island paradise is world-renowned for its pristine beaches, lush rainforests, and vibrant culture. But how much of its tropical treasures are open to the public, and how many remain under private ownership?

If you’re curious to know the breakdown of public and private land in America’s 50th state, read on for a deep dive into the complex history and current status of land ownership across the major Hawaiian Islands.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Out of the 8 main Hawaiian islands, 6 are completely under state or federal control. Only the islands of Niihau and Kahoolawe have any private ownership.

A Brief History of Land Distribution in Hawaii

In order to understand the current state of privately owned land in Hawaii, it is important to delve into the history of land distribution in the islands. Over the centuries, the ownership and stewardship of land in Hawaii have undergone significant changes, shaped by various historical events and cultural practices.

Native Hawaiian Land Stewardship

Before the arrival of Western explorers, the Hawaiian Islands were inhabited by Native Hawaiians who had a deep connection to the land. Land in Hawaii was traditionally communally owned, with families and communities sharing and managing resources in a sustainable manner.

The concept of ‘ahupua’a’ was central to this stewardship, where land was divided into pie-shaped sections that stretched from the mountains to the ocean, ensuring a diverse range of resources for communities.

Native Hawaiians had a profound respect for the land, considering it a sacred resource that needed to be cared for. They practiced sustainable agriculture, utilizing techniques such as terracing and irrigation systems to cultivate crops like taro, sweet potatoes, and yams.

This holistic approach to land stewardship ensured the survival and prosperity of the Hawaiian people for generations.

The Great Mahele of 1848

The arrival of Western settlers in the early 19th century brought significant changes to the land ownership system in Hawaii. In 1848, King Kamehameha III implemented the Great Mahele, a land redistribution act that aimed to transition from communal land ownership to individual ownership.

Under this system, land was divided into three categories: Crown Lands, Government Lands, and Konohiki Lands.

The Great Mahele had far-reaching consequences for the native Hawaiian population. While it was intended to provide Hawaiians with the opportunity to own land, many were unable to navigate the complex legal processes involved.

As a result, a significant amount of land was acquired by foreign interests, leading to a gradual decline in native land ownership.

Rise of the Plantation Era

The late 19th and early 20th centuries witnessed the rise of the plantation era in Hawaii, with the sugar industry becoming the dominant economic force. Large tracts of land were acquired by sugar plantation owners, who controlled vast portions of the islands.

The plantation system relied heavily on immigrant labor, with workers from countries such as China, Japan, and the Philippines coming to Hawaii in search of employment opportunities.

During this period, the land ownership landscape in Hawaii continued to evolve, with more land being acquired by private individuals and corporations. The sugar plantations had a significant impact on the cultural, social, and economic fabric of Hawaii, shaping the islands’ history and identity.

Today, the distribution of privately owned land in Hawaii is a complex issue with various factors at play. While it is difficult to determine the exact number of privately owned islands in Hawaii, there are several examples of privately owned islands that have gained recognition, such as Lanai, which was purchased by billionaire Larry Ellison in 2012.

It is important to acknowledge the historical context and the impact it has had on land ownership in Hawaii. Native Hawaiian land rights and the preservation of cultural heritage are ongoing topics of discussion and advocacy in the islands.

6 Main Islands Under Complete Government Control

Oahu – No Private Ownership

Oahu, the third largest of the Hawaiian Islands, is completely under government control. This means that there is no private ownership of any part of the island. The entirety of Oahu is managed by the government, ensuring that its natural beauty and resources are protected for future generations to enjoy.

With stunning beaches, vibrant cities, and historical landmarks like Pearl Harbor, Oahu offers a wealth of attractions for visitors and residents alike.

Hawaii (Big Island) – No Private Ownership

The Big Island, also known as Hawaii Island, is another Hawaiian island that is entirely under government control. With its diverse landscapes, including active volcanoes and lush rainforests, the Big Island is a true natural wonder.

The government’s stewardship of the island ensures that its unique ecosystems and cultural heritage are preserved. Visitors to the Big Island can explore its stunning national parks, experience traditional Hawaiian culture, and even witness the power of an active volcano.

Maui – No Private Ownership

Maui, often referred to as the “Valley Isle,” is yet another Hawaiian island that is not privately owned. The government’s management of Maui ensures that its pristine beaches, world-class resorts, and scenic landscapes are protected.

From the iconic Road to Hana to the stunning sunrises at Haleakala National Park, Maui offers a wide range of attractions for travelers seeking an unforgettable Hawaiian experience.

Molokai – No Private Ownership

Molokai, known as the “Friendly Isle,” is a hidden gem among the Hawaiian Islands. This island is also under complete government control, ensuring that its natural beauty and rich cultural heritage are preserved.

Molokai is home to the Kalaupapa National Historical Park, which tells the story of the island’s leprosy settlement. With its unspoiled landscapes and warm hospitality, Molokai offers a unique and authentic Hawaiian experience.

Lanai – No Private Ownership

Lanai, often called the “Pineapple Island,” is another Hawaiian island that is entirely under government control. With its tranquil beaches and rugged landscapes, Lanai is a haven for nature lovers and those seeking a peaceful escape.

The government’s management of the island ensures that its natural resources are protected, allowing visitors to experience its beauty in its purest form.

Kauai – No Private Ownership

Kauai, also known as the “Garden Isle,” is the oldest and northernmost of the main Hawaiian Islands. Like the other islands mentioned above, Kauai is under complete government control, meaning there is no private ownership.

This ensures that Kauai’s stunning landscapes, including the iconic Na Pali Coast and Waimea Canyon, are preserved for all to enjoy. With its lush rainforests, cascading waterfalls, and breathtaking beaches, Kauai is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers.

The Two Privately Owned Islands – Niihau and Kahoolawe

Niihau – The Forbidden Island

When it comes to privately owned Hawaiian islands, Niihau is often referred to as “The Forbidden Island.” This 72-square-mile island is located just southwest of Kauai and has been privately owned by the Robinson family since 1864.

Access to Niihau is strictly limited, and the island is known for its isolation and preservation of Hawaiian culture.

The Robinson family has maintained a policy of limited contact with the outside world, resulting in a unique and untouched way of life on Niihau. The island is primarily populated by native Hawaiians, and the residents speak Hawaiian as their first language.

Niihau is also known for its thriving art of traditional Hawaiian crafts, such as shell leis and intricate wood carvings.

Visitors to Niihau are extremely restricted, with only a select few allowed to set foot on the island. This exclusivity has contributed to the island’s mystique and allure, making it a fascinating destination for those intrigued by its rich history and cultural significance.

Kahoolawe – From Military Target to Sacred Preserve

Kahoolawe, located just south of Maui, is another privately owned Hawaiian island. However, unlike Niihau, it is not privately owned by an individual or family. Instead, it is owned by the state of Hawaii and is under the jurisdiction of the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission.

Kahoolawe has a unique and tumultuous history. During World War II, it was used as a military training ground and bombing range, causing significant damage to the island’s ecosystem. However, in 1994, the island was returned to the state of Hawaii, and efforts to restore and preserve its natural and cultural resources began.

Today, Kahoolawe is considered a sacred place for Native Hawaiians and is managed as a reserve for cultural, historical, and scientific purposes. The island is still closed to the public, but efforts are underway to restore its ecosystem and protect its cultural heritage.

Volunteers and conservationists have played a crucial role in the restoration of Kahoolawe. They have worked tirelessly to remove unexploded ordnance, restore native vegetation, and promote cultural practices on the island.

The ongoing efforts to revive Kahoolawe’s natural beauty and cultural significance serve as a testament to the resilience and determination of the Hawaiian people.

Efforts to Return Ancestral Lands to Native Hawaiians

Hawaii, with its stunning landscapes and rich cultural heritage, is a place of great importance to the Native Hawaiian people. Over the years, there have been ongoing efforts to return ancestral lands to Native Hawaiians, allowing them to reconnect with their heritage and preserve their cultural traditions.

These efforts have been driven by a deep understanding that the land is not just a physical resource but also a spiritual and cultural one.

The Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1921

One significant step towards returning ancestral lands to Native Hawaiians was the passing of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1921. This act set aside approximately 200,000 acres of land for the purpose of establishing homesteads for Native Hawaiians.

The intention was to provide Native Hawaiians with the opportunity to live and thrive on their traditional lands, fostering a sense of community and preserving their cultural practices.

The Hawaiian Homes Commission Act has had a lasting impact on the Native Hawaiian community. However, it is important to note that not all Hawaiian islands are covered by this act. Some islands, such as Niihau, remain privately owned.

Kuleana Lands

Another aspect of efforts to return ancestral lands to Native Hawaiians is the concept of Kuleana lands. Kuleana lands are parcels of land that were granted to Native Hawaiians prior to the Great Mahele (land division) of 1848.

These lands often have complex ownership histories and can be subject to legal disputes.

Efforts are being made to clarify and validate the ownership of Kuleana lands, ensuring that Native Hawaiians have rightful access to their ancestral lands. This involves extensive research, legal processes, and community engagement to navigate the complexities of land ownership and establish a fair and just system.

Ongoing Activism and Legal Challenges

Despite the progress made through initiatives like the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act and the recognition of Kuleana lands, there are still ongoing challenges in returning ancestral lands to Native Hawaiians.

Activists and organizations continue to advocate for land rights, pushing for the return of privately owned islands and the protection of sacred sites.

Legal battles have also played a significant role in the efforts to return ancestral lands. Lawsuits and court cases have been filed to challenge the ownership of certain lands and to assert the rights of Native Hawaiians.

These legal challenges highlight the ongoing struggle to rectify historical injustices and ensure the preservation of Native Hawaiian culture and identity.

It is essential to support these efforts and recognize the importance of returning ancestral lands to Native Hawaiians. By doing so, we can contribute to the healing and empowerment of the Native Hawaiian community, honoring their rich history and ensuring a sustainable future for all.


While the vast majority of Hawaii’s picturesque landscape remains protected for public enjoyment, the islands’ complex history of land distribution has left enduring wounds for many Native Hawaiian families displaced from their ancestral lands.

But thanks to the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s and continuing indigenous rights efforts today, more Hawaiian lands are gradually being returned to their original stewards. The restoration of these family lands promotes cultural renewal and self-determination for Native Hawaiians in the 21st century.

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