Not too long ago, I spent a morning with my father at a memorial service for one of his friends, who was like an uncle to me growing up. His family and friends gathered at the beach at Ukumehame and shared stories about the man they loved and missed. The prevailing theme was his (and our) connection to this place, the aina (or land) and the kai (ocean), and what it means to live in Hawaii.
I left the services feeling sad, but also a bit disconnected: it made me realize, the land and the ocean are something I find myself taking for granted. They are here every day, and sometimes, I forget just how spectacular they are.
I commented on this feeling of disconnection to my father, who suggested I look into the Hawaiian Island Lands Trust. In that small world way that Hawaii has about it, I found an old classmate of mine, Scott Fisher, is now the Director of Conservation. I reached out to him, and a few days later, I found myself on a tour of the Waihe'e Coastal Dunes and Refuge.
Driving into the refuge, I left behind the town of Wailuku, an abrupt transition from manicured golf course to wetlands. I followed Scott along a dirt road, and couldn't help but notice the bumper sticker on his truck, "Save Something".
We reminisced about our eighth grade experiences (which included an unfortunate hockey accident on my part) and where our lives had taken us to get to where we were right now.
Scott has directed his passion for Hawaii and conservation to this piece of land: the Waihe'e Coastal Dunes and Wetlands Refuge. The Hawaiian Islands Land Trust bough the land in July, 2004 for $4.8 million dollars from the County of Maui, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA.
Walking with him around the refuge, I felt like I was back in my fourth grade Hawaiian history class: learning about the ancient Hawaiians, and the careful and thoughtful way they structured their lives. Farming. Fishing. Hunting. Protection. Day to day living. It's a rather inhospitable spot by modern standards, but it served its purposes--near the mountains for fresh water and agriculture, a protected space, and both shallow shores and deep waters close by for fishing. He gives me a history lesson (a much needed refresher) and points out that I am about to step on an endangered plant--one of only about 100 in the state. I wonder how they know this.
The interesting thing is how open they are with this space that they've so carefully been restoring for the last ten years. They encourage people to hike and camp, and the refuge is always open. Guided educational hikes are offered in the reserve, about two miles round trip.
Waihe'e isn't the only land HILT protects--there are 93 state listed archaelogical sites statewide, and properties preserved for cultural and beach access, open space, and habitat restoration on Kauai, Hawaii, Oahu, Maui, and Molokai. I was surprised to find they protect one of my favorite spots, right in my back yard, Hawea Point. Located in the heart of Kapalua, Hawea Point is home to the endangered Wedge-tailed Shearwater, 'Ua'u kani and the start of one of my favorite walking trails on the island. I love to come to this rocky point as the sun sets, watching the birds return home to their nests.
The work of HILT is fundamentally to preserve open spaces in Hawaii for all to enjoy--it is three-fold: protecting the archaeological sites; promoting public access through education (especially by hosting students of all ages); and preserving and restoring the important ecosystems and habitats.
Each year, their fundraiser "Buy Back the Beach" sells out, so I suggest you mark your calendars--the next event is January 25, 2014. Information about Buy Back the Beach, their membership programs, and about other lands they have protected, both on Maui and the other islands, can be found at www.hilt.org
Their organization depends largely on public support. I strongly suggest if you have the time, to visit their site, take a guided hike to catch a glimpse of Hawaii you may not see otherwise, and support their efforts to preserve these open spaces that are becoming more scarce, and therefore more valuable to us all.
Photo: Waihe'e Coastal Refuge, courtesy of HILT, credit Ron Chapelle. www.HILT.org