story by Curt Sandburn
illustration by Alex Preiss
For anyone who loves Hawai‘i’s natural landscapes, 2006 dawned with a flurry of good news. Story after story told of treasured bits of land rescued from impending development and protected forever. It was as if aloha ‘aina, the Hawaiian concept of land stewardship—of the essential indivisibility of a people and their land—had suddenly become official policy.
It began on New Year’s Day 2006, when a headline in the Honolulu Advertiser heralded the acquisition of 225 coastal acres at remote Honu‘apo, on the southeast coast of the Big Island. The rugged, mile-long collection of wetlands, tide pools and rocky shore was targeted for residential development by a California real estate company. But following pleas for help by local residents, state, county and community funding sources were brought together to purchase the wild stretch of coast and add it to the adjacent county run Whittington Beach Park.
Then on January 5, it was announced that the City and County of Honolulu was adding $1 million in cash to a funding partnership with the state of Hawai‘i, the U.S. Army and private donors to protect as parkland 1,129 acres atop Pupukea bluff, overlooking Sunset Beach on O‘ahu’s North Shore. The forested parcel had been the focus of passionate opposition by the local community ever since its Japanese landowner first announced plans to build 500 view homes on the edge of the bluff in 1990. Barely a week later, a preliminary court settlement set in motion the transfer of the bulk of Waimea Valley, also on O‘ahu’s North Shore, to the state’s Office of Hawaiian Affairs. The $14 million transaction involves the city, the state, the U.S. Army and the National Audubon Society, and ends a long-running dispute with New York-based landowner Christian Wolffer, who had planned to develop a portion of the 1,800-acre valley as an “adventure park.”
Then, in early February, news broke that a national nonprofit called the Trust for Public Land was pooling together more than $5 million in state and federal funds to buy upper Moanalua Valley from the Damon Estate, with plans to place it in state ownership.
If all these conservation deals sound roughly similar, it’s because they are. Each involve partnerships between landowners, government agencies and public and private funding sources, all of them coaxed together by the low-profile Trust for Public Land (TPL) and its Hawai‘i Islands program manager, thirty-four-year-old Joshua Stanbro.
A Californian who first came to Hawai‘i to work construction on the Big Island in the early 1990s, Stanbro says he became involved in Hawai‘i affairs when a lawsuit involving Native Hawaiian rights caught his attention. That case, popularly known as Public Access Shoreline-Hawai‘i (or PASH), ultimately led the Hawai‘i Supreme Court in 1995 to reiterate the state’s obligation to protect the customary rights of Native Hawaiians to access privately owned lands for cultural practices. The ruckus surrounding the case convinced Stanbro to put down his hammer and study law. He went back to California and got a law degree from UC-Berkeley, but he didn’t want to be a litigator: “Not my temperament,” he says. Instead, he did nonprofit work in Oakland, and then, four years ago, was hired by TPL to work in its Hawai‘i office.