Conservation is Essential

The Life of the Land is Our Economy

He ali‘i ka ‘āina, he kauwā ke kanaka
The land is the chief, man is its servant
—‘Ōlelo Noʻeau #531, collected and translated by Mary Kawena Pukui

“Economic diversification.” By now, we have probably all heard these two words, likely in reference to Mauiʻs off-kilter approach to supporting itself with a substantial helping of revenues from the visitor industry. The state of the economy is born of our relationship to home and the places we care for and depend on for survival, so when it’s unstable, we feel it in our daily lives. We are all participants in the economy, and keep it alive through our daily choices, our work, our behavior as consumers and community members. But how are these choices serving the land?

When COVID-19 hit and visitors stopped coming to Maui, the fragility of our economy became readily apparent. In the absence of tourism and businesses dependent upon it, we turned to “essential” workers in healthcare, agriculture and various public sectors to keep our community running in a pandemic, even though their own safety was at risk. Maui’s unemployment rate soared to 35%, higher than the national unemployment rate during the peak of the Great Depression. As the county distributed federal workforce development funding to encourage job creation in sectors other than tourism, the natural world sprang back to life: reefs teemed with fish, well-worn paths became wild, air quality improved and all of nature seemed to exhale. 

When tourists flocked back to the islands in 2021, a traumatized community tried and failed to place a cap on the number of new tourist accommodations, citing the desire to protect the places we love from further harm. Community organizations like Maui Tomorrow Foundation rallied together with droves of residents to support a moratorium on new visitor accommodations. Of course, the tourism and construction industries also showed up, arguing for their rights to future profits. Not surprisingly, even with a majority vote on the Maui County Council, then-Mayor Mike Victorino vetoed the moratorium and a much weaker bill passed instead. 

We’ve since seen record visitor numbers. Meanwhile, residents continue to contract COVID-19, while tourism (directly and indirectly) continues to account for two-thirds of all employment opportunities—all in the name of capitalism. 

The COVID-19 pandemic made clear that our “diversification” efforts must train residents to better care for Maui, create more jobs in conservation and land stewardship and adequately fund the protection of the places we love. Tourism has long extracted from our lands, our waters and our people, and we need to balance this impact with equal parts restoration and investment in the land that feeds us. Jobs protecting and restoring whatʻs left of our native habitats, vulnerable plant and animal species found nowhere else on the planet, and our precious watersheds–which provide us the clean water we all need to survive–have an exponential positive impact. 

Kupu Hawaii’s Youth Conservation Corps, is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the land and empowering young adults through collaboration and hands-on experience. Photo courtesy Kupu Hawai’i.

According to professionals working in conservation, our island ecosystems are now dependent upon our constant stewardship to continue operating in a healthy way. The situation is dire, and it affects every one of us. Maui’s watershed partnerships, land trusts, invasive species committees, and habitat restoration programs are nearly always hiring. There is much work to be done, but these programs are grossly understaffed and often underfunded. Haleakalā National Park needs two nonprofit organizations bringing in volunteers and funding because the federal government doesn’t have the resources to do it all. 

Meanwhile, conservation training programs, like Kupu Hawai‘i and Skyline Conservation, are working to develop a new generation of conservation workers, and the Sustainable Science Management program at UH Maui College is preparing undergraduates for careers in sustainability and island conservation. Interested in a job in conservation and land stewardship and not sure where to start? Volunteer for organizations that resonate with you, and learn from the best.

As residents of these islands, we each have kuleana to step up and care for our island home. Why not dedicate our labor to the life of the land, helping to restore balance? As a bonus, a career in conservation can mean spending more time outside, hands in the earth, and you can sleep at night knowing you’re helping make our island healthier. 

Sara Tekula