Hawaiian Islands Land Trust is a small organization dedicated to a crucial cause (the graveness of which became clearer the more time I spent here): the conservation of ecologically, culturally, historically, and agriculturally significant places. With limited resources and relatively few staff members, everyone here works very hard to serve the organization’s important mission to “protect the lands that sustain us.”
This summer, I had the opportunity to work as an intern at HILT’s O‘ahu office. Working with several staff members on various projects, I got to see the underbelly of land trust work and discover how HILT operates to fulfill its mission. With the goal of learning a bit about everything, I participated in various projects both in the office and “out in the field.”
HILT’s O‘ahu office is a small, simple, unassuming suite located in an unimposing building in a quiet part of downtown Honolulu. You would never guess from the outside what significant work was being done within. The sincere aesthetic of the HILT office is reflective of the sort of work that HILT does. Unflashy, genuine, straight to the heart of the matter. Working in the office with Kawika, Angie, and Jean, I was able to participate in the fundraising (or “development”) side of things as well as learn about the process of land-acquisition and management. All of this took the form of much reading and writing, a bit of drawing, some database research, some mail-merging and Excel-spreadsheet-making, and lots of envelope-stuffing to boot. It was all very interesting work, and most of it completely new to me. From the first few readings (legal easement documents, management plans, and an archaeological report), I knew just how much learning I would have ahead of me.
As a novelty-seeking intern looking for new knowledge wherever it could be found, I also got to tag along on several out-of-the-office adventures. These included a volunteer day with Hawaiian Airlines at Maunawila Heiau; a site visit of a potential property on O‘ahu; a trip to the airport post office for a bulk-mailing project; a trip to Hau‘ula to build cardboard wa‘a (canoes) with school children and learn about Hawaiian history and language; and finally a weeklong stint at the Hawai‘i Conservation Conference.
Over the course of my time with HILT, I have experienced many new things, and gained many new insights regarding land acquisition and nonprofit development, as well as made a first step into the vast world of Hawaiian culture, language, and history. Perhaps the most important idea I saw put into elegant practice at HILT was the multifaceted nature of places.
So much of what a place is depends on what we make of it. It’s true that land is physical and can be defined by its biotic and abiotic factors, or split into parcels by tax map keys and boundary lines. But places are also defined by the stories we tell about them: how we interact with them in the present, and how we understand their past. Furthermore, subjectivity and differences in background knowledge mean that each person will view and experience a place differently. Put simply, places mean different things to different people.
Take, as an example, Maunawila Heiau, owned and managed by Hawaiian Islands Land Trust since 2014, and located in Hau‘ula on the North Shore of O‘ahu. A real estate agent or government official might describe Maunawila as TMK:  5‐4‐005: 010, a fee-owned 9.08-acre property in an AG-2 (agricultural) zoning district. An archeologist would look at the same land and note the various igneous and coralline alignments and features, searching for artifacts and significant stones. A cultural anthropologist would bring a different perspective, wondering about the mo‘olelo (stories) associated with the place and the practices and rituals observed here. What type of heiau was Maunawila and what did the prophet Makuakaumana have to do with it? A biologist would notice the non-native octopus trees and unbridled hau, and consider what endemic plants and animals might do best in this environment. An educator would wonder “is it safe to bring children here?” and a fundraiser would ask the same about potential donors. A volunteer would see the guinea grass and, wielding a machete, work to clear the area of harmful invasives. A child might see a place of wonder and mystery or steer clear of it, fearing its religious attributes. A practitioner of Hawaiian culture might honor the land as a place of ancestral sacredness, worthy of immense respect. And an intern with HILT would get to learn about all of these perspectives and revel in the marvelous complexity of places and people.
How we understand a place depends on the stories we connect with it. After working at HILT, I have added a new story to my understanding of conserved places. I also have a better grasp and deeper appreciation of the work of conservationists. Protecting our most important lands is a noble aspiration and one that is becoming ever more urgent. At Hawaiian Islands Land Trust, I have had the privilege of seeing a group of dedicated, sincere, and intelligent people working in pursuit of this immensely consequential goal.
By, Susannah Lawhorn