Steven Apfelbaum may be one of the most unpretentious, down-to-earth people you will meet. This preeminent restoration ecologist, with more than 9,000 projects throughout North America and the globe over his 40-year career, is as unassuming as his curriculum vitae is long (44-pages, no less). It is fair to describe him as a 21st-century Renaissance man, a true pioneer in ecosystem-scale design and planning. Yet, despite authoring acclaimed books, hundreds of articles, peer-reviewed scientific studies, and a presentation to the Obama White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in 2016, Apfelbaum remains – well – grounded.
A visitor to Hawai‘i early in his career and again more recently, Apfelbaum will return on March 28 to offer a public presentation titled “Food Security in the Climate Change Era,” sponsored by ‘Aina First, an organization dedicated to regenerative agriculture, local food security, and collaborative solutions. The free presentation will underscore Maui’s transition out of the plantation era, which Apfelbaum enthusiastically describes as a “100-year opportunity. It’s a rare event of changing economics, demographics, ecology, and climatology.”
His business, Applied Ecological Services, has 16 locations in 10 states, with 150 consultants and staff. A couple years ago he worked on Kaua‘i, contracted by the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct a Wildlife Hazard Assessment due to the proximity of protected nene geese to the Lihue Airport runways. During his stay, he got a call from an old acquaintance on Maui, Charlotte “Char” O’Brien. She had first heard of Steven years before when she managed a dairy farm in Wisconsin. Later, they connected at a Tufts University conference titled “Biodiversity for a Livable Climate.”
Now the CEO of Carbon Drawdown Solutions, O’Brien had just engaged three other dynamic women to launch a proactive start-up organization to help galvanize forces for positive change, given the transition of former sugar lands in the wake of the closure Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar (HC&S). Thus, ‘Aina First was born. Apfelbaum, too, was intrigued by the news, and suggested, “Why don’t I come over and take a first-hand look?”
He did a detailed analysis of the former sugar lands, assessing soil types, health, nutrients, moisture, climate conditions, and more. They rented a plane and flew, “low and slow,” to get a birds-eye look at the dynamics of the land. He has returned three times since then, and what he observed he found absolutely captivating.
“The nexus of intersecting factors is unique,” he proclaimed. “I’m blown out of the water by [envisioning] the multiplier effect of integrating ecology, economy, and culture.” A typical two-dimensional business pro forma is money over time, Apfelbaum stated, but added that “if they just focus on economy, they won’t get it right.”
His preliminary planning observations showed some high-value locations for agriculture, and others of low quality that are better suited for restoration, recreation, or even a farm village. Apfelbaum said the demand for healthy places to live will increase, and linking food to community to culture is vital.
“When we re-inject the elements that are no longer there, adding more nutrients and water to depleted lands, the positive results are dramatic,” he stated. Using tried and true ecological design perspective and systems thinking, Apfelbaum believes we can rethink the way we use the land, “transitioning from mono-cropping to diversified food production.”
Yet, Apfelbaum acknowledged, “I understand processes and principles, but don’t have all the answers. We need to learn together as we go forward.”
To that end, ‘Aina First has helped set up meetings with the visiting ecologist and the new owner of the old HC&S lands, Mahi Pono. Apfelbaum brings his experience with innovative projects to the table, including the Prairie Crossing community in Illinois, which became a national model for using ecosystem restoration to manage stormwater, rather than hard infrastructure such as curbs, gutters, and sewers. “We emulated nature,” he said about the design.
I spoke by phone with him as he overlooked the Sugar River in his native southern Wisconsin, not far from where the esteemed conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote his acclaimed Sand County Almanac, just after World War II. Apfelbaum remarked that recent spring warming had the river, which is bounded by 400-foot limestone ridges in the “driftless area” which was spared glaciation in the last Ice Age, cresting near flood stage.
“I’m watching a fox crawl like a cat through the tall, dry grass, stalking a flock of maybe 100 Canada geese,” he marveled. “He started at about 100 yards and now is within about 10 yards, and they still haven’t reacted,” he added with a chuckle.
Apfelbaum was at the former Decatur Lake Golf Course near Brodhead, which he and others recently purchased to convert to a Public Conservation Park, retaining the clubhouse and commercial kitchen for weddings and special events. Their first action was planting 18 acres of sunflowers, which he said deterred any golfers from using the course, while providing gallons of sunflower oil and 24,000 pounds of bird-seed (and a much-photographed destination for passers-by). As we spoke he also observed white-tailed deer and a flock of thirty wild turkeys.
Trained as an ornithologist, Apfelbaum came to Hawai‘i in the late 1970s, just out of college, and banded some 75,000 seabirds – sooty terns, red-footed boobies, brown noddies, and albatrosses – on Midway and Kure Atolls. In preparation, he did a week-long crash course at Bishop Museum with Dr. Gerald Herbst, sketching some 1,500 native Hawaiian flora to train him for plant assessments while doing his seabird work.
For the past 10 years, Apfelbaum has commuted from Milwaukee to Boston to teach a Friday class, “The Future of Coastal Systems on Earth,” at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He is the author of Nature’s Second Chance, published in 2009, which received a rave review from the New York Times. Sales are “still going strong,” he said of the book that placed in Top 10 Environmental Books honors that year. He co-authored Restoring Ecological Health to Your Land, winning praise as the first comprehensive how-to book for landowners and managers. And, Apfelbaum’s visit to Maui will coincide with the release of his newest book, S is For Soil. Lavishly illustrated, it will ultimately see publication in three editions, serving as grade school, middle school, and high school-to-college level primers.
“Steven’s visit and presentation is sort of a coming out party for ‘Aina First,” said ‘Aina First’s Susan Teton Campbell, herself an author, acclaimed chef, healthy food advocate, and Maui Tomorrow board member. “We have been diligently working as a start-up for the past two years, and now are ready to invite more participation and collaboration.”
To learn more about ‘Aina First, including its consultants and advisors, visit Ainafirst.com. Along with co-founders, creative director and media producer Sandra Hay and outreach and education director Kutira Decosterd, former Maui County Councilmember Alika Atay is advising ‘Aina First on Hawaiian agricultural practices.
Food Security in the Climate Change Era
Maui Beach Hotel
170 W Ka‘ahumanu Ave., Kahului
Thursday, March 28. 6pm
Images courtesy Steven Apfelbaum