Ulalia Woodside sees a world of challenges surrounding her in her job — executive director of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) of Hawaii — given all the environmental crises of the current era.
But there is much that Woodside, 48, finds encouraging, too. The nonprofit is among those buoyed by the state’s Legacy Lands Conservation Program, while acknowledging the audit that has pointed out the program’s management flaws.
And just this week, the conservancy announced the results of a coral reef study that showed signs the reefs, crucial elements of the marine ecology worldwide, are recovering surrounding the islands.
TNC does not solicit land grants, Woodside said, but there were two South Kona land parcels donated by Dr. Charman Akina. After the second transfer was completed, the Kona Hema Preserve was enlarged.
“Do we have a huge uphill battle? Absolutely,” she said. “But all this just gets me excited about what we get to do.”
Her mother, Leiana Long Woodside, introduced her to hula; her father, David, was a wildlife biologist and naturalist. Woodside graduated from Punahou School and then the University of Hawaii with a bachelor’s degree in political science and Hawaiian studies. She continued graduate work there and ultimately was credentialed by the American Institute of Certified Planners.
She worked in urban planning, and then for Kamehameha Schools and its land-based educational programs. The focus there was to develop a new way of evaluating land to encompass its cultural and natural resources as well as its capacity for producing revenue, Woodside said.
Now she enjoys working for a national conservancy, enabling her to share Hawaii’s knowledge more broadly, and for Hawaii to learn strategies and practices from other places as well.
She once heard a Hawaiian navigator and educator bemoan the loss of resources and worry that preservationists were only “managing decline.” Woodside prefers the upside view.
“On Molokai, when we first acquired this little spit of land at Mo‘omomi, there were only two shearwater nests there,” she said. “I think there’s something like 3,000 now; you can see the little dots on Google Earth.
“That’s not managing decline anymore.”
Question: What distinguishes the work you do at the conservancy from your previous position managing lands for Kamehameha Schools?
Answer: At TNC, we are part of a global organization that works across the U.S. and in 72 countries. My kuleana is to oversee our conservation work in Hawaii and Palmyra, and to align our work with the priorities of the larger organization to make a difference for nature and communities at a global scale.
The collaboration and sharing of knowledge that takes place among TNC programs is tremendous. In many areas, Hawaii has demonstrated innovative ways to tackle environmental challenges. Much of our work is done in private-public collaboration like watershed partnerships, and we have a strong history of working with Hawaiian and local communities to identify near-shore fisheries priorities. These are models we can share with other regions.
We are also able to tap the expertise of other TNC programs that have explored strategies that could help us, like developing forest carbon opportunities, or where we can work with colleagues to advance national policies that impact conservation in Hawaii.
As the executive director of the Hawaii chapter, I oversee all programs from science and conservation management to government relations, philanthropy, communications, administration and human resources. I also work closely with our local board of trustees, and like every TNC state program, we are tasked with raising our own revenue. It’s a huge, ongoing responsibility.
Q: What is TNC’s staff and annual budget? What are its sources of funds?
A: We have 77 staff members on our team and an annual budget of $13 million. Our primary office is in Honolulu, we have five neighbor island field offices, and a research laboratory at Palmyra Atoll. Statewide, we work with over 30 coastal communities to protect coral reefs, fisheries, wetlands and estuaries.
We manage 13 preserves totaling 40,000 acres and participate in or lead eight watershed partnerships. Those partnerships help protect an additional 1.5 million acres of Hawaii’s best forest and conservation lands.
Our funding sources are diverse and include funds raised privately from individual donors, foundations, bequests, businesses and general membership; state and federal grants that we compete for; and a generous endowment that covers most of our administrative and overhead costs.
Q: How do you view the recent audit alleging mismanagement of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ acquisition fund? Do you think this hurts preservation efforts?
A: What I hope the audit does is make a worthy program even better. The Legacy Land Fund has done enormous good. It has protected key shoreline areas, agricultural lands, wetlands, parks and cultural sites across the state. Many of the problems identified by the audit, including overpayments and lapses in hiring and funding, occurred during a time of leadership transition at DLNR. Those problems have been or are being corrected.
Audits are especially useful at uncovering flaws in process and procedure. Unfortunately, the findings aren’t often evaluated against the results a program achieves. And the Legacy Land Fund has achieved a lot.
It’s worth noting that no money was lost due to the lapses in management. The overpayments were an accounting error that is being corrected. The lapsed acquisition money, some $2 million, is still there. DLNR’s authority to spend it expired, and with legislative approval it can be released.
Q: What do you think of the recent clash over science and Hawaiian culture? How do you see those two values balancing out?
A:In my experience, what is called a clash over science and culture is a false dilemma.
What is at issue is how people engage with each other, respect for traditions and values of place, and processes that can foster positive understanding.
Science and culture aren’t separate values. For societies and cultures to thrive, scientific rigor is necessary. The Hawaiian culture is no different. Observation and repetition led to complex water management systems for agriculture, construction of fishponds in estuary zones for aquaculture, and navigating by the stars to cross a vast ocean.
At TNC, we value all 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. Through respect and fostering positive working engagement, we can achieve balance and move forward.
Q:What are your concerns for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and other federal sources?
A:We expect federal dollars for conservation to remain tight but are optimistic that funding for the LWCF will be restored. This is America’s most important conservation program.
For over 50 years, it has provided funding for open space, clean water, recreation and jobs. Every state has benefitted, especially Hawaii, which has received $230 million to establish and protect five national parks and six national wildlife refuges.
The LWCF uses offshore oil and gas revenues to fund conservation; it doesn’t cost taxpayers a thing. Among the American public, support for the program is overwhelming. Even though its reauthorization is being held hostage by congressional budget battles, there is strong bipartisan support.
Our aim is not just to have the fund restored, but to make the authorization permanent and ensure that the entire annual appropriation of $900 million is used for conservation, not diverted to other purposes, as it often has been in the past.