Rob Parsons

Living Legacies

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and the Maui Coastal Land Trust

By Rob Parsons
Published in Maui Time Weekly
March 01, 2007

Robert Francis Kennedy Jr. is one of America's most passionate environmentalists. Last Wednesday, Feb. 21, he addressed a near-capacity audience at Maui Arts and Cultural Center's Castle Theater, as the first of five speakers in the Focus Green lecture series. Though his voice quavered at times (Kennedy lives with a condition known as spasmodic dysphonia, which strains his speech), his ardent environmental and political message never wavered. In fact, he gave so much information that one audience member likened listening to "trying to drink from a fire hose."

The goal of the Focus Green series, according to sponsor/land developer Everett Dowling, is to increase public awareness about global warming and hopefully motivate more people to take action. Kennedy, as senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the leading environmental watchdog organizations, is all about taking action.

The Harvard grad is the author of Crimes Against Nature: How George W. Bush and Corporate Pals are Plundering the Country and Hijacking Our Democracy. In his lecture he called Bush's team "the worst environmental administration ever" which has "systematically eviscerated 30 years of environmental laws." Listing former polluting industry lobbyists Bush hand-picked to guide environmental agencies-foxes guarding the henhouse-Kennedy said they have served the President's corporate paymasters and profiteers instead of the public interest.

He described the dismantling of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts as the subversion of American democracy. He said corporate crony capitalism is treating the planet as if it was a business in liquidation. And he said that this "monumental arrogance and incompetence" is being abetted by a "negligent and indolent press.

"Incompetence becomes criminal negligence," said Kennedy, "and we passed that threshold long ago."

When an audience member asked what citizens can do, Kennedy said two things: media reform and campaign finance reform. "Corporations should not be running our government," he said. Later he called campaign contributions "a system of legalized bribery."

Kennedy opened his lecture by saying Maui is one of his and his wife Mary's favorite places in the world. "Don't worry", he joked, "we won't tell anybody."

Since a Time magazine cover story in 1982, and a string of "Best Island" picks in Conde Naste Traveller, Maui's charm as a tourist destination is no longer a secret. More than two million visitors arrive each year. Some like it so well they decide to move here, or buy a timeshare or second home.

The influx of wealth over the past two decades has resulted in more mega-mansions, and the loss of beachfront lots and open space views. In fact, it was the surge in development of coastal land, and a few lost battles to save wild shorelines at Palauea Beach and Keka`a Beach, that led in late 2000 to the formation of the Maui Coastal Land Trust (MCLT).

The mission of the Maui Coastal Land Trust is to acquire, preserve and protect coastal lands in Maui County. In a little more than six years, MCLT has accomplished a lot to meet this lofty goal.

Among their first actions was support for a 2002 charter amendment to allocate one percent of real property tax revenues to support open space and coastal acquisitions. The ballot measure passed, and this revenue became a key part of the purchase of 277 acres of coastal dunes, wetlands and cultural sites, as well as more than a mile of beachfront at Waihe`e.

Other accomplishments include a conservation easement on the Hana coastline through Maka`alae pastureland between Hamoa and Waioka and working with landowners in the "Pali to Puamana" park gateway to West Maui. Moreover, the MCLT board includes developers, landowners and conservationists, all working side-by-side.

Executive Director Dale Bonar said he expects to issue press releases in the next month or so announcing conservation easements on three separate parcels, totaling more than 500 acres. He says that 1,700 land trusts nationwide have helped preserve more than 34 million acres of land.

Bonar said he felt Kennedy didn't do enough at his lecture to address how to solve the huge political and environmental problems of our time, but felt he "set the stage," for other lecturers to do so. Future speakers include Canadian scientist David Suzuki (March 14), author James Howard Kunstler, (March 21), California environmental policy adviser Terry Tamminen (March 28) and Green Building Council CEO Christine Ervin (April 4).

Though the Focus Green lecture series is free, donations go to MCLT, the designated beneficiary. Their sixth annual "Buy Back the Beach" Benefit luau is scheduled for Saturday, March 24, and has sold out each year. This year's event features entertainers Frank De Lima, Raiatea Helm, Howard Ahia and Fulton Tashombe.

Tithing a portion of our hard-earned wages to benefit coastal land acquisition is more than a feel-good charitable donation. It helps us establish legacies of protecting our natural resources in our lifetime.

Robert Kennedy Jr.'s family legacy is a passion for his country, as well as for politics. He said that as a boy his father took him to Europe, where tens of thousands of people greeted them wherever they went.

"We were the most beloved country on the face of the earth," he said. "In six short years the White House has drained that reservoir dry, and we are either feared or despised."

Echoing that sentiment, and seated in the front row of the Kennedy lecture, was activist Lance Holter. Chair of the Sierra Club's Maui Group and the Maui Democratic Party, Holter has campaigned against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, our military presence in Iraq, the U.S. Army court-martial of conscientious objector Lt. Ehren Watada and much more.

"The Bush administration is a war machine run amok," said Holter. "It's gotta stop."

Holter also continues to campaign for a North Shore Heritage Park and to preserve the coastal wilderness between his hometown Paia and Spreckelsville. He has enlisted the help of former and current congressional representatives Ed Case and Mazie Hirono, and is reaching out to the County Council and Mayor's office as well. Meanwhile, the MCLT recently prepared a report on coastal lands from Spreckelsville to past Huelo, as part of the studies for the General Plan update.

Kennedy said that through nature we connect to the 10,000 generations that lived here before us. He related how in virtually every world religion, the central epiphany is revealed after Buddha, Muhammed, Moses, Jesus and others spent time in the wilderness. He told of American poets, writers and artists using nature as the critical defining element of who we are, and of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau perceiving Nature as our Spiritual Parent.

Faced with our country's leaders at loggerheads with reason and sanity, we may do well to look at our local model of cooperation, the Maui Coastal Land Trust. Perhaps these dedicated efforts here may have a ripple effect, leading others to see what's possible.