At first glance, it seemed like any other art opening at the MACC. A long line for the pupu table, people in their fancy clothes drinking wine and milling about in the crowded Schaeffer Gallery, carefully hung art adorning the walls. But there was something different about this event. Something a little more more down to earth.
This was “Legacy of Land,” a heartfelt reflection of something very real and important happening on our islands. This show featured a collection of works directly inspired by a decade’s worth of land conservation by the Maui Coastal Land Trust (MCLT)—a success story of a local “nonprofit that could.” There—on the walls and on the faces of the people standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the buzzing crowd of nearly 500—was the proof.
For the last 10 years, led by executive director Dale Bonar and its board of directors, the MCLT has been responsible for facilitating the permanent protection of over 14,000 acres of land in Maui County from future subdivision and housing developments. These unprecedented protections are placed on the land “in perpetuity.” That means forever.
Just days before the art show, the MCLT had announced its merger with three other land trusts across Hawaii, forming a unified front and “locking in” a future for public and private land conservation throughout the state. Kauai Public Land Trust, Oahu Land Trust, Maui Coastal Land Trust and Hawaii Island Land Trust are now a single entity, with Maui chosen as the headquarters for the new group.
The new organization, the Hawaiian Islands Land Trust (HILT), promises to be a stronger, more efficient collective, a nationally accredited land trust whose efforts have resulted in 17,000-plus protected acres on 20 different sites. This includes important coastlines, rare and endangered habitat for native plants and animals, valued agricultural lands and rich historic archaeological and cultural sites. And that’s only the beginning.
IT BEGAN AT WHITE ROCK
The MCLT story begins in the late 1990s, when a grassroots environmental group formed—led by local activists Susan Bradford and Lucienne de Naie—and worked to save Palauea Beach (“White Rock”) from development, raising funds and lobbying the County to buy the properties. While the group didn’t save the land, it proved to be a fortuitous meeting of minds.
MCLT founding board member—and interim board president for the new Hawaiian Islands Land Trust—Helen Nielsen remembers the experience as a challenge and a catalyst. “Of course with each house site being sold off for several million dollars, they needed a lot of money, very quickly, and of course they couldn’t raise that money so fast,” she says. “But it was a lesson—to become more proactive in saving lands that are important.”
Afterward, the grassroots group began meeting to discuss and research how they could do better next time. They saw that there was only so much government agencies could do, and began to research how private nonprofit land trusts worked—a model that was becoming popular in private landowner-led conservation around the country.
Simply put, land trusts use a variety of tools to help landowners protect their land. Sometimes, land trusts purchase the land themselves, with the vision of allowing open public access to the land. Most of the time, however, land trusts arrange, negotiate and enter agreements with private landowners who give up the development rights on some of their land, with the new land-use restrictions written into the deed.
Land trust organizations are also responsible for working with state and private entities, raising money and doing the due diligence of managing these protections, conducting inspections and making sure the terms of the agreements are upheld. Each transaction is complicated and unique, and since the agreements are drawn up to each properties’ exact specifications, it’s arduous work.
Together with Nielsen, Bradford and de Naie decided that forming a land trust might be the way to save land and significant sites on Maui. They attended a training conference offered by the National Land Trust Alliance (NLTA) to learn more about how trusts are structured. It’s there they met Dale Bonar, then an NLTA staffer and an Oahu-raised marine scientist who deeply understood the issues they were facing in Hawaii. “If you want to start a land trust this is what you have to do,” he told them. “Get the whole community. Get the native community, the developers, the politicians, the environmentalists, the landowners, everybody at the table.”
Over the next couple of years, they “followed his advice to a T,” says Nielsen. Bonar sent information and examples from afar to help them get started while the group put the organization together, raised the money to get it off the ground and ultimately brought Bonar back to the islands as the first executive director—a position he’s held ever since.
From the beginning, the group had its eye on a list of potential preservation sites, one of which was 277 coastal acres between Waihe‘e Park and Waihe‘e Point that once housed the Waihe‘e Dairy. The area was an important Hawaiian historic site and the potential sale of the property—which had been slated to become a golf course surrounded by high-end estates—had sparked a lively, at times divisive debate. With Bonar now on board, MCLT was able to arrange for multiple grants and private and public funding to purchase the land for $5 million dollars.
That land is now a wetlands preserve, a fully accessible undeveloped shoreline and an open space education and restoration refuge.
“[Waihee’s] got the whole spectrum of things that are really critical to Hawaii,” says Bonar. “Deep deep cultural roots, deep legendary roots. In legend, this is where the demigod Maui came to collect the coconut fiber that he used to make the net that he roped the sun with. There were ancient Hawaiian villages there—this is where they had the peace treaty after the Battle of Kepaniwai. The sand dunes there are the last major unmodified sand dunes in the state, and they’re probably the densest Hawaiian burials in the whole state. It’s got endangered birds, endangered plants. Waihee could have been turned into a golf course—they had the permits to do it, they could have gone ahead and done it. It was the economic cycle that kept that from happening. That was another one of those ‘stars lining up’ things. Right things, right time.”
“There were a lot of people in the community who thought that land should be protected for many years,” remembers Helen Nielsen. “To see that we were able to get that kind of funding and to get the support from the community was a big jump for us.”
Over the years, the land has become a sanctuary for native shore birds and a native plant restoration site with original lo‘i (taro farms) and loko i‘a kalo (combination taro-fish ponds). All restoration work is done by hand, out of respect for the dozens of archaeological sites at the refuge. Project manager Scott Fisher, land steward James Crowe and educational coordinator Denby Freeland-Cole often bring volunteer and school groups to visit, to work the land and to learn.
“We have to be very careful with how we interact with our environment,” says Fisher. “We have to ensure that the changes we introduce are long-term beneficial to all of the living things, humans, animals, plants. We need to hold on to a vision of where we want to see the world in 50 or 100 years, for our children, for their children, generations down. We preserve what we find most important. When people value it, that is when we begin to actually turn things around.”
While the land is privately owned and managed by the land trust, there’s an open-door policy offering as much access as possible to the public.
“People can walk in any time,” says Bonar. “We open the gates during the day if people want to bring their cars in. If the fishermen want to go down there and fish over the weekend, they come by to get a key and sign it out so they can unlock the gates and bring their trucks in where they’re protected.”
DEALING WITH DEVELOPMENT
As the state and county’s population continues to grow, development is a necessary fact of life. There’s no way to stop people from moving here and having children, and these people need homes. But that doesn’t mean we have to watch our open spaces morph into endless housing tracts. We can keep our agriculture, we can keep our coastlines, we can keep our vistas and views. Who can help us do this? Private land owners.
People often complain about the more controversial things landowners do. “Did you hear? They sold off their land for the ultra-rich to build mansions!” “They’re going to turn that into a resort and golf course.” “That’s going to wreck the reef.” And it’s true, all those things have happened.
When the recession hits the fan, landowners are forced to consider selling off parcels to developers. After all, the appraisal value of their land is based on what it can be developed in the future: Can there be more houses there? Can there be commercial activity there? These are the things—when you only consider money—that matter.
But what we don’t hear about as often are the noble things some of our biggest landowners are doing—with the help of the MCLT—to set aside portions of their property with “conservation easements”—voluntary legal agreements between a landowner and a land trust that permanently restricts certain aspects of land use.
With these arrangements, the land is still in the hands of the owner, but in a broader sense it becomes beneficial to everyone because of the resources and value that comes with conservation. Landowners, meanwhile, enjoy significant tax break incentives. Especially for families who are land rich but cash poor, these arrangements reduce estate taxes and allow the land to be passed down from generation to generation. It’s the very definition of a win-win.
ULUPALAKUA RANCH: A SUCCESS STORY
In 2009, the Erdman Family of Ulupalakua Ranch donated an 11,000-plus acre “agricultural easement” to the MCLT—the largest conservation donation ever made in Hawaii. Because the land will never be subdivided and will remain agriculture-only, the Erdmans’ gift has major implications for our food security and for alternative energy solutions.
Ranchers at heart, the Erdmans operate Maui’s second-largest cattle ranch and host Maui’s only winery and Dr. Art Medeiros’s revolutionary “Auwahi” native restoration project. Incorporated in 1956 by Pardee Erdman, the family are land stewards, “dedicated to preserving and protecting Maui’s open spaces.”
Bonar says he’s honored to work with the Erdmans. “As it was before [our agreement], if there were to be new owners to take over the ranch, they could have developed it and said, ‘Sorry, we’re going to turn it into something.’ But [now] this land will always be conserved for ag, and that the Auwahi project will be able to go on for as long as it can be carried on. It’s a place that could very easily be turned into high-end homes with heart-stopping views.” But it won’t be—and that’s the Erdmans’ contribution.
“I remember at the signing ceremony, Pardee’s grandchildren said, ‘When we grow up, we can be ranching this land’,” Nielsen recalls.
TAKING IT TO THE H.I.L.T.
The land trust office on Maui—headquarters for the new statewide effort—is brimming with talented, experienced and dedicated people, including outreach director Sara Smith, operations manager Monica George and development director Kathleen Buenger. As a unified entity, HILT promises to bring private land conservation in Hawaii to the next level.
“One of the great benefits for us as we bring the staff from all the islands together is, rather than having four executive directors who are having to do everything, it’s allowing us to individually specialize in the things that we’re individually best at.” says Bonar. “In addition, it’s more unified resources, it’s more attractive to people to know that there’s a larger, more sustainable organization. After all, we’re promising we’ll protect these lands in perpetuity, which is pretty audacious.”
Nielsen, HILT’s interim president, gushes with pride about the future of the organization she helped build from the ground up. “I like to think ahead 100 years and consider the impacts we will have on the landscape then,” she says. “I expect the population to be quite larger, but with significant land conservation as well, helping to keep the high quality of life in the islands we all know and love.”