Lea Hong stands at the piko of O‘ahu, the island’s figurative navel, with sweeping views over the central plain toward the Ko‘olau mountains to the east and the Wai‘anae range to the west.
With her adorable mini-labradoodle Milo lapping at her slippered toes, the environmental attorney surveys the fields of red dirt and tall grass surrounding this sacred site, the Kūkaniloko Birthing Stones—in all some 1,700 acres of prime agricultural land that Hong helped save from development, as she has with so many other critical parcels throughout the Islands in her role as state director of the Trust for Public Land, or TPL.
Wandering among the cluster of low, lichen-spotted stones that once served as the sequestered birthing spot for the highest of Hawai‘i’s chiefs, Hong recalls how, growing up in nearby Wahiawā town, her mother used to bring the family to visit the birthing stones back when they were surrounded by the furrows and machinery of industrial pineapple cultivation. The most satisfying thing about working to conserve critical sites, she muses, is that “the land will be here long after we’re gone. That’s a tremendous legacy to be part of.”
A nationwide nonprofit dedicated to promoting and preserving access to nature —its motto is “Land for People”—TPL has helped conserve more than forty thousand acres of important cultural, environmental and agricultural lands in Hawai‘i since it began working in the Islands in the late 1970s. (Nationally the figure is more than 3 million acres and counting.) But more remarkable is how TPL goes about its mission, stepping in regularly as a matchmaker to resolve often bitter, decades-old standoffs between developers and activists by putting together funding deals for amicable, “win-win” purchases that protect public access to open spaces while giving their owners the financial return they need. “I guess we’re kind of the Match.com of conservation,” Hong laughs.
Right around the time of the first Earth Day in 1972, a group of young lawyers and real estate pros, a number of whom had worked for The Nature Conservancy, founded TPL with the aim of helping preserve green spaces for people to enjoy rather than solely for the sake of habitat. Many of the trust’s projects focus on parks and trails close to urban areas, and the organization likes to say it has helped make nature accessible to millions of people within a ten-minute walk from home.
But Hawai‘i is special, TPL staffers agree, because of the critical need here to protect lands of Native Hawaiian cultural importance. Over the years the trust helped preserve such key sites as Waimea valley on O‘ahu’s North Shore, with its stunning natural beauty and deep history as a “valley of the priests,” and the Wao Kele o Puna rainforest on Hawai‘i Island, considered sacred to the volcano goddess Pele and the site of heated protests several decades before over geothermal energy development. Most recently the trust helped turn over control of Kuamo‘o on Hawai‘i Island, the site of a decisive 1819 battle over the official abrogation of the traditional Hawaiian religion, to descendants of warriors who perished in the struggle.
The trust started working in Hawai‘i in the late 1970s, when it helped Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park secure land for a new park entrance and visitor center near the coast in Kalapana—a site that was later consumed by lava as one of the early casualties of the Pu‘u Ō‘ō eruption, which continues to this day. Following that purchase, Mainland-based TPL staff took on select conservation projects in Hawai‘i. In 1995 a West Coast staffer named Scott Parker—a former real estate manager with a love of nature who went to work for TPL to become what he calls an “undeveloper” —took over a project on Maui from a colleague who was going on maternity leave. While in the Islands working on that case, he got a plea for help from taro farmers in O‘ahu’s Waiāhole valley to help resolve a seventeen-year battle over lands along Kāne‘ohe bay—today a public beach park. “I was so energized by that project that I came back to San Francisco and said, ‘We need to be in Hawai‘i,’” Parker recalls. “You can’t just sort of drop in and drop out as the case may be. This is too important of a landscape, and the threat too high. The services that the Trust for Public Land could bring forward were needed in Hawai‘i almost more than anyplace else I can think of.”
With backing from the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation and others, Parker established a full-time Hawai‘i office in 1998 and began working on a slate of projects across the Islands while keeping a relatively low profile. “When we began working in Hawai‘i,” says Parker, who still works for TPL as the organization’s Texas state director, “I felt very much the need to listen and learn, and not so much to assert.”
In the mid-2000s, TPL emerged further into public awareness locally after it played a leading role in preserving several high-profile parcels on O‘ahu’s North Shore, including iconic Waimea valley. Sacred to a line of royal priests for hundreds of years, the narrow valley, with its famous waterfall and a botanical garden filled with threatened plant species, had been bought by an investor with plans to build luxury homes. After a huge community outcry, the city stepped in to preserve the land through condemnation but required additional funds to make the $14 million purchase. TPL worked quickly with a group of state, city and military funders to complete the deal, and title to the land passed to a subsidiary of the state’s Office of Hawaiian Affairs, or OHA, which today operates it as a cultural visitor park.
Soon afterward TPL also helped OHA acquire the twenty-six-thousand-acre Wao Kele o Puna, the Islands’ largest remaining lowland rainforest, on the flanks of Kīlauea volcano. Back in 1990 hundreds of protesters had marched passionately to stop a planned geothermal energy well in the forest, claiming that the drilling would disturb native ecosystems and constitute a desecration of Pele’s volcanic form, according to Hawaiian cultural beliefs. The project was scrapped, and eventually the landowner put the forest up for sale, which resulted in the $3.65 million conservation purchase completed in 2006.
Part of TPL’s mission is to help pass legislation for park and conservation funding. Purchases like Waimea valley became possible in Hawai‘i after the trust successfully helped advocate for special land conservation funds at the state and county levels, which created new financing opportunities for conservation deals, as did a new US Army policy of purchasing open land to preserve “buffer” spaces around military installations.
These developments “all of a sudden started to spin the flywheel faster in terms of being able to do deals,” says Josh Stanbro, who headed TPL’s Hawai‘i projects until Hong came on board as state director in 2006. “Up until that point we were only really able to cobble together funding for one project at a time, but after the state and counties passed the dedicated funds for land protection, we could start to click off multiple deals at one time.” Examples include the panoramic North Shore bluff of Pūpūkea-Paumalū, which had been the subject of a bitter development battle for decades; 3,700 acres of diverse forest land in Moanalua valley not far from downtown Honolulu; Honu‘apo fishpond near the southern tip of Hawai‘i Island; and ocean access and cultural sites at Mū‘olea point in rural East Maui.
Because the deals that TPL helps negotiate are purely voluntary, says Hong, “we’re very respectful of owners’ property rights. But when a community that is concerned comes to us, we do approach the landowner and say there is an alternative. We can make the best case to them in terms of financial reasons, tax reasons or even emotional reasons, but we’re not here to force anybody to do anything. We try to make it work for everybody.”
If the owner shows interest, TPL starts reaching out to potential funders, which in Hawai‘i are often a combination of state and county government, the military and institutional donors. In a few cases they also make funding appeals for individuals to contribute directly to a portion of the purchase price. But because TPL does not directly hold lands itself for extended periods, they look for a community partner or government agency that can assume possession and management. And they somehow manage to do all this—often juggling a half-dozen or more extremely complex land deals at a time—with a tiny staff of just five.
Often a deal will take years to complete, with a myriad of stakeholders, conditions, hearings and red-tape processes to wade through. Patience is a job requirement at TPL, Hong says, along with “a lot of listening. Some of the communities just feel like they haven’t been heard and are very, very passionate and vociferous. And on the landowner’s side, developers and business people have emotions, too, so sometimes there is a lot of angst and heartache about things that may have been said about them in the heat of passion. So it’s really just about listening to what both sides have to say and understanding what their goals and pressure points are.”
Sometimes, says TPL Native Lands Project Manager Laura Kaakua, it can feel like unseen hands are at work: “Landowners will tell us occasionally that they’ve been having a feeling, or even a recurring dream, that something just is not right until their land can be taken care of. They’ll call me and say, ‘I’m not sure what’s going on, but I know somehow that I’m supposed to work with you.’ So we’re not in control of everything—that’s clear.”
Kaakua, who went into environmental law in part because of the respect for nature she gained as a young hula practitioner, says the TPL’s work in Hawai‘i is different from the organization’s efforts elsewhere mainly because “we have made it a focus to try and empower the Native Hawaiian community to lead in these land conservation efforts and to re-establish ancestral connections. We very much respect the knowledge of communities and their passion for the lands that they love and want to conserve.”
Having swapped her silver Prius with the “Don’t Panic—Go Organic” bumper sticker for a loaner resort golf cart, Hong stands on a wind-whipped sandy rise in a floppy purple sun hat, squinting against the brilliant afternoon light along a stretch of pristine coast at Kahuku point near the North Shore’s Turtle Bay Resort. After community activists rose up several years ago against the resort’s move to act on an old development plan to build five new hotels, several shopping centers and hundreds of condos on its property, TPL struck a $45 million deal in 2015 to preserve 630 acres of the coastline—one of the trust’s crowning achievements in helping to “keep the country country.” In return, the resort got good corporate-citizenship credit for acting to help resolve three decades of North Shore community conflict over the area, good karma that it hopes will help smooth the way ahead for greatly scaled-back development plans for two hotels and far fewer condos. And under the agreement Turtle Bay still gets to use a prime portion of the land for resort recreational activities, while providing access, maintenance and security for the entire preserved coastline at no cost to the public.
“It’s so nice seeing families and fishermen enjoying the beach here, on one of our last wild coastlines,” Hong says. “It feels humbling to have played a small role in it.” All the more so because of the long, dogged effort it took to close the deal, including powering through her own cancer diagnosis and treatment in 2014.
“There’s no way we could have been successful in doing this without the Trust for Public Land bringing in their expertise and credibility to complete a really, really complex transaction,” says Doug Cole, who heads the North Shore Land Trust, which has assumed stewardship of this and other key conservation parcels in the area that TPL helped protect. “We have only so much land left in Hawai‘i, so preserving natural areas is preserving a priceless resource. Lea and TPL have done an amazing job of helping the community sit down with landowners and providing them with an understanding of conservation alternatives that allow for a win-win solution to some of the biggest land controversies we’ve had here on the North Shore.”
For her part, Hong says the work is just in her nature. “I guess I’ve always been somewhat of a peacemaker,” she says, “and I think there’s a lot of healing that comes through protecting land.” HH