After 17 years on the job, Haleakala National Park’s Superintendent Don Reeser is hanging up his wide-brimmed, dented ranger hat. On July 23, he’ll retire, closing a 40-year career with the National Park Service (NPS).
Reeser’s towering stature, broad smile and gentle mannerisms bring to mind Yogi Bear, but in Ranger Smith’s uniform. But instead of stealing pic-a-nic baskets, Reeser made sure the natural bounty within Haleakala National Park was kept safe.
Reeser’s environmental conviction began with his youth in Oregon. Spending countless hours in the countryside with his father helped him develop his attachment to nature.
Reeser began his career in 1963, when the NPS was moving towards a more ecologically based management. Park officials were broadening their scope from merely providing recreational opportunities to treating the parks as ecosystems needing preservation and protection. The NPS began restoring critical vegetation, rescuing endangered species and reviving ecological balance. This became the foundation of Reeser’s conservation ethos.
But now he’s looking forward to relaxing and making homemade wine, growing coffee and beekeeping. Reeser is especially passionate about his three beehives and honey. He recently harvested 40 pounds of his “Don-Bunny” honey (named for himself and his wife) from his upcountry hives.
I recently sat down Reeser in his office tucked away on Haleakala’s misty mountain slope. As we drank cups of homegrown coffee and ate roasted chocolate espresso beans, he reflected on how he got the job as Superintendent of Haleakala National Park and what is yet to come.
Maui Time Weekly: Who influenced your career?
Don Reeser: Stuart Udall, the Secretary of the Interior under Presidents [John] Kennedy and [Lyndon] Johnson who commissioned the  Leopold Report influenced how I perceived resource management.
Aldo Leopold, the author of the Sand County Almanac and the father of wildlife ecology influenced me. His “Land Ethic” helped set the stage for the modern conservation movement.
My father helped me appreciate nature. As a hunter and fisherman he was concerned about wildlife and the environment.
Is the National Park Service’s future secure?
I believe the NPS’ mission actually binds this nation together. The NPS mission of preserving resources and making them available to the public is secure. NPS’ mission and goals should be perpetuated as long as this nation survives—these are very important natural and cultural sites.
How has Haleakala National Park faired under the Bush Administration?
We’ve received small increases for law enforcement, wastewater treatment for the new summit restroom and staff salaries but overall the park is experiencing eroding budgets due to inflation. We need additional money for land acquisitions.
If [Al] Gore or [John] Kerry would have been elected I speculate the park would be better off. Gore had a greater commitment to the environment. For example, under the Clinton/Gore Administration the beneficial Fee Demonstration Program was enacted which allows each park to keep 80 percent of its entrance fees to pay for special projects.
This program allows Haleakala National Park to take in $2.5 million a year for new projects such as the restrooms at the summit, trail improvements in the crater and improvements to Kipahulu campground.
What are some of the challenges you fought as Superintendent?
One of the biggest challenges was stopping the extension of Kahului Airport. This extension would have brought in foreign flights and more alien species. Maui’s facilities for interdicting alien spices were, and still are, inadequate. We spend half our working budget combating the alien species problem. We can work till the cows come home taking out invasive species in the park, but if new ones keep coming into Maui, the fight is hopeless.
Miconia is the greatest threat to the park. It grows quickly and can take over the forest. Currently, all the agencies combined are spending about $800,000 a year to combat this aggressive plant. We need to double that budget in order to make any headway.
The new Superferry presents a big challenge. Cars from other islands will be traveling over Maui dropping foreign pests and seeds into our ecosystem.
What are you most proud of?
My focus has always been on preserving natural resources. I’m proud of keeping this momentum going to protect the park’s native ecosystems. We can always build a new building or pave a road but we can’t replace an extinct plant or bird.
I’m proud of the air-tour management agreement that we worked out with the commercial helicopters companies. Before this agreement, the helicopters were constantly flying over Haleakala Crater, destroying the pristine wilderness experience. With this informal agreement, helicopters no longer fly over the crater.
Adding new parkland to Haleakala National Park has been an accomplishment. Working in partnership with private landowners and the Nature Conservancy, the Conservation Fund and Trust for Public Lands, the park has accumulated almost 6,000 additional acres.
I’m proud of my involvement and relationship with Kipahulu Ohana [the Hawaiian nonprofit group developing a living history program in Kipahulu]. I’m anxious to see the cooperative agreement continue.
I feel strongly about involving the native Hawaiian community in the park, allowing them to farm on parkland, build hales, plant native plants and provide an educational experience for visitors though this living history program. Kipahulu is relatively sterile without this living history.
Instead of just being known as a swimming hole, I’d like the Kipahulu area to become a place where people can go and have a real cultural experience—a place where people can see what the area and the people were like prior to Captain Cook’s arrival. MTW