Rob Parsons

Watchdog Millionaire

Maui's environmental stewards need a lifeline. What will be the final answer?

by Rob Parsons

January 29, 2009

Could Beach Access Soon Be Gone ?

Cue the music. Get your phone-a-friend on standby. The clock is ticking, and Maui's precious environment and quality of life are at stake!

For $1,000, which eco-organization had its origins in the State Park at Makena efforts in the 1980s?

  • A. Maui Unite
  • B. Maui Tomorrow
  • C. Save Makena
  • D. South Maui Sustainability

Even if you correctly named Maui Tomorrow as the group whose precursor's efforts led to saving Makena's Big Beach from development, there is another question which remains unanswered: In our current economic downturn, how will these nonprofit environmental groups and dozens of others like them land funding for their dedicated efforts?

Volunteer groups working on conservation, preservation, restoration, planning and sustainability efforts on Maui and throughout Hawaii have many successes to show for their work. Yet much more slips through their fingers each year, due to insufficient staff and funding and the enormity of the challenges they face.

Part of the reason environmental efforts are in desperation mode is because Maui's planning process has operated something like a game show called Who Wants to Approve/Build/Sell a House for a Millionaire? The resultant impacts of this high-end development have been many: lost beachfront areas and coastal access; storm runoff and degraded coral reef ecosystems; strains on parks and wilderness areas; loss of open space views; tapped out fresh-water aquifers; and a sagging sense of defeat, a feeling in the community that there's no way to stop or slow runaway development.

It may indeed be an "against all odds" scenario to imagine that in these uncertain economic times, environmental watchdogging might receive the same level of million-dollar support as that given to development schemes. But if a street-smart kid from the Mumbai slums can win a million dollars and have a Bollywood ending with the most beautiful girl in all India, isn't there yet hope of a happy outcome for Maui that doesn't resemble a mini-Oahu or Mailbu?

Because of our geographical isolation, arguments for local self-sufficiency should be that much more poignant here than in, say, Des Moines. Why not set our sights on becoming a model for food, fuel and water sustainability and a showcase for environmental stewardship and cultural awareness? Then we'd really have something to market to the rest of the world, besides ziplines, hula shows, parasailing and celebrity chefs.

Indeed, more and more experts are touting the wisdom of revamping our economy into something more locally sustainable, and in doing our part to show the rest of the planet what is possible.

"It is not enough to just worry about Maui and Hawaii," said Amazon ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin last week, during remarks at the Dowling Company-sponsored Focus Green lecture series at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center. "Every place in the world needs indigenous peoples and cultures respected and protected. All primary forest should be protected."

Plotkin's work as founder and president of the Amazon Conservation Team has won him high praise, including being named one of 2008's Social Entrepreneurs of the Year by the Skoll Foundation. He has led efforts that have trained 60 indigenous park rangers, linked traditional medicine practitioners, built a hospital out of rainforest materials and trained native people in map-making skills, with assistance from Google Earth. As a result, more than six million acres of Amazon cultural lands and rivers are now mapped, helping defend loss of those areas to loggers, gold miners, agri-businesses and other interlopers who would fell the rainforests for their own gain.

Plotkin emphasized the prevailing theme espoused by native shamans-that every action is interconnected, that "it's all tied together.

"All of these problems are caused by people and can be solved by people. But everyone must be involved," said Plotkin.

Indeed, if ever there was a time to encourage full participation in addressing and supporting the challenges before us, it is now.

South Maui Sustainability (SMS), the upstart community group inspired by last year's Focus Green speakers, is stepping up to the plate. In less than a year, they have spread awareness and information on a number of topics.

Let's get back to our game. Which of the following was not the subject of a recent public presentation by speakers hosted by South Maui Sustainability?

  • A. Renewable energy
  • B. Walkable communities, transportation choices and public health
  • C. Backyard gardening and composting
  • D. Raising chickens in an urban neighborhood

SMS's Web site has become a huge portal of useful links for almost anything "green," clean or eco-oriented, and so far without any substantial funding-just lots of enthusiasm. But a quick scan of committees reveals that SMS has established a fundraising and grants team, a wise idea if they hope to continue their initial flurry of successes.

Oh yes, the correct answer above is "D." There already seems to be sufficient local knowledge about raising fowl island-wide, while some have cried foul over being awakened by neighboring roosters.

Maui Tomorrow and Sierra Club are two organizations with plenty to crow about, including successful litigation to uphold local ordinances and state laws. But legal efforts, as we all know, can't get by on chicken feed.

It would be a mistake to characterize these two groups as being lawsuit happy, however. In instances such as the state's fast-tracking of Hawaii Superferry approvals ahead of legal environmental review, both groups made extensive efforts to resolve issues without legal intervention. But with intransigence all the way up to the governor's office, the matter went to court anyway.

The Supreme Court ruling in favor of the environmental groups was quickly reversed by a special legislative session resulting in Act 2, allowing Superferry to sail again. Only now are the real costs-both in dollars and to the environment-beginning to be felt and understood.

A recent Honolulu Advertiser article listed at least $5 million in additional, unanticipated expenses in subsidizing Superferry, beyond the $40 million originally budgeted by the state. It is to the credit of these grassroots eco-groups that they raised sufficient funds to mount a legal challenge to protect Hawaii resources and taxpayers-and to win. But the meter is running, and these efforts and so many others also require support.

Our environment is our economy. That's a line that's been repeated many times, with varying degrees of authenticity. To assure that our elected officials and decision-makers set us on the right track and help establish a new green foundation of renewable energy and sustainability, we need watchdog efforts to guard the public's interests.

Greater presence is needed at the state legislature and Public Utility Commission to ensure that emerging renewable energy policy includes grassroots community input, and is not merely top-down planning by the governor, Hawaiian Electric Company, and their chosen designees. Great vigilance will be required to allow competition, encourage decentralization and promote energy efficiency and conservation.

Continuing oversight is needed with our county council on planning issues, especially when they will be asked to review final long-range planning recommendations set forth by the General Plan Advisory Committee, now nearing completion of its monumental task. Advocacy for food sovereignty and fair allocation of fresh water resources is essential, as land and water decisions have long been controlled by plantation politics.

Such efforts and initiatives must be supported with the same enthusiasm we islanders sometimes reserve for surfing, New Year's fireworks, shopping or Super Bowl parties. In short, each and every person needs to contribute something, anything, in order for us to succeed.

Barack Obama's campaign was victorious in part because so many people were engaged, even at a level of contributing $5, or slapping on a bumper sticker. Similar widespread support is essential for local environmental and sustainability planning to succeed.

As one who has adopted the watchdog moniker in my quests to improve Maui's community, and protect the environment we all enjoy, I, too, am feeling the economic pinch. I was fortunate to serve four years as the Maui County Environmental Coordinator, thanks to the vision of Mayor Alan Arakawa.

Recently, philanthropic funding has enabled me to continue grant research and work on alternative energy, water and food issues and island planning. Now, that financial support is gone.

I have been in conversations with key Maui eco-warriors about establishing MANA-the Maui Action Network Alliance-to better connect and enhance the existing efforts of many great organizations, as well as working with government. Two or three full-time employees could make a considerable positive impact, much as Malama Kauai has done over the past year.

This vision will require big-money donors, while so many of us are just trying to get by. In the meantime, I've buffed out a Web site that archives much of my writing and advocacy efforts, and added a PayPal button for easy donations. This is my unabashed invitation to each of you to visit that Web site and to give whatever you can. Know that your contribution will be used wisely, and will make a difference.

As Amazon rainforest collaborator Mark Plotkin said, everyone must be involved for us to be successful. Everything is interconnected. Malama pono.

Maui Tomorrow

Sierra Club-Maui

South Maui Sustainability