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Editorial | Island Voices

Science can protect Hawaii’s environment

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The word “science” means many things to different people. While some see science as nerdy and boring, others are in awe of the discoveries that have been made and the technologies that change our lives.

To me, science means hope.

As the executive director of The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii, I spend my days tracking such threats as climate change, deforestation and the overfishing of our oceans. You might think it would be depressing.

But science provides the tools to overcome these threats. Science has achieved once unimaginable things, and I fully believe it can enable us to live sustainably with the millions of other species that share our world.

This year on Earth Day, April 22, we march for science. After decades of bipartisan support for scientific research, the new federal administration is proposing drastic cuts to our country’s scientific programs that could have dire, far-reaching consequences. Now more than ever, we need to invest in science and recognize it is our best hope for solving the critical issues of our time.

Here in Hawaii and around the world, tens of thousands of people will take part in the March for Science. Together, we will be calling on our elected officials to continue investing in scientific research and raising awareness of the central role that science plays in conserving the natural systems we all rely upon for survival.

The Nature Conservancy is a science-based organization, founded by scientists. Our first project in Hawaii was a scientific expedition into Maui’s Kipahulu Valley, which this week is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

In 1967, Kipahulu Valley was one of the last remaining areas of true Hawaiian wilderness, a place where the evolution of plants and animals had occurred with virtually no disturbance from human activity. When the scientific expedition confirmed it was a sanctuary for many rare and endangered native species, we acted to preserve it, purchasing 5,000 acres in the upper and lower portions of the valley and donating the land to Haleakala National Park.

Back then, fewer than 225,000 acres of conservation land in Hawaii benefitted from legal protection. There were no national wildlife refuges, no state natural area reserve system, no Nature Conservancy preserves, no watershed partnerships. Today, thanks to a wave of scientific surveys that followed Kipahulu, more than 700,000 acres of conservation lands are protected for nature to thrive. Science led the way.

It concerns me that science and our native culture are sometimes perceived as being in conflict. My father was a wildlife biologist; my mother a kumu hula. When our family went hiking, or down to the beach, my parents had different but complementary ways of engaging with the environment. For me, it wasn’t that one was science and one was culture. It was just that my parents observed and expressed the world around them in different ways.

Traditional knowledge and western science depend heavily on repeated observation. At The Nature Conservancy, we view them both as valid forms of knowledge. In our work in coastal areas across the state, we have found that many Hawaiian communities have a long history of observation of their place and accumulated knowledge of its resources. When we combine that knowledge with the best of western science, we are better able to restore and protect those resources.

Science — whether in a traditional or western form — is the key to preserving Hawaii’s environment. If we are to solve problems like coral bleaching, rising sea levels and rapid ohia death, it will be because we invested in science and allowed it to guide the way.

That’s why, to me, science means hope.

Ulalia Woodside is the executive director of The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii.

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