2012 Environmental Heroes


Story by Lehia Apana | Sarah Ruppenthal | Judy Edwards | Shannon Wianecki

The earth has no voice. It doesn’t lobby at town council meetings, it can’t build an electric car, and it can’t fight practices that put profit above planet. But humans do have a voice. Every day, the four men and women on these pages speak out — through their words and actions — on behalf of the environment. As for our fifth environmental hero, let’s just say Makana excels at reminding us what we’re fighting for.

environmental-heroes-jim-coonJim Coon: Setting the Course

Jim Coon is an unlikely environmentalist. Of course, you wouldn’t know that by looking at his resume. The catalogue of awards he’s won, committees he’s sat on, and legislation he’s helped along reads like a wish list for anyone determined on saving the planet. But it wasn’t always that way.

Born into a family of seafarers, Jim became a commercial fisherman at age eleven. His parents ran a sport-fishing charter in Alaska, and it seemed that would be his destiny. To Jim’s surprise, his father urged him away from that lifestyle.

“He was trying to make that transition from consumption to nonconsumption, and he wisely told me that these were finite resources,” recalls Jim, who was a teenager at that time. “That was a concept that nobody talked about back then.”

After a two-year sailing tour around the world, the Coon family landed on Maui and began Trilogy Excursions in 1973. Today, Jim and his brother, Rand, run the sailboat charter company, which offers day trips to Lanai, snorkeling tours and sunset cruises.

Jim has been fighting on behalf of Hawaii’s oceans since the seventies, well before “being eco-friendly” or “going green” entered the global vocabulary.

“I spent a lot of my life extracting from the environment, and so this was a new direction for me, to see a fish and not have to extract it. Just being able to enjoy the beauty of it,” Jim says.

Perhaps his greatest gift to the environment is the example he sets.

In the late eighties, while serving as president of the Ocean Resources Council, Maui Chapter, Jim helped pioneer Hawaii’s day-use moorings program, which protects the reefs by providing anchor points to use rather than the coral itself. These days, Trilogy donates equipment and manpower to regularly maintain and install day-use moorings throughout Maui and Lanai.

In 2005, Trilogy became the first tour company to retrofit its boats to dispose of sewage at onshore facilities rather than at sea. When the pump-out stations at Lanai’s Manele Harbor broke earlier this year, Jim dug into his own pocket to help finance the repairs.

He shies away from taking the credit, though, pointing out that his employees are the real environmental heroes. It was crewmembers who initiated Trilogy’s latest project, the Blue‘aina Campaign, a monthly reef cleanup that targets local surf spots. Trilogy donates its boats, employees donate their time, and community volunteers pay a small fee to participate, with all profits benefiting a different Maui nonprofit each month.

“We’ve attracted staff who really want to do the right thing — that’s their ethic. We’ve set some examples, but we’ve learned a lot from the people we’ve hired.”

It’s a learning process that never ends, Jim says.

“We’re not perfect; we’re never going to be perfect. But a year from today we’re going to be better than we were today, and a year from that we’re going to be better than that.”

— Lehia Apana

Rick RutizRick Rutiz: Nailing It

Even though he’s miles away in Hana, I can practically hear Rick Rutiz blush over the phone when I ask him how it feels to be an environmental hero.

Rutiz is the executive director of the Hana School Building Program, or Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike (“in working, one learns”), an award-winning, innovative construction-skills training program he created twelve years ago for at-risk youth in the area.

From the moment his first students strapped on their tool belts, this tiny, remote town has undergone a remarkable transformation — one building at a time. In addition to several on-campus projects, the young artisans have designed, constructed, retrofitted and remodeled homes for local kupuna (elders), community centers, and other much-needed facilities.

While construction skills are the foundation of the program, Rutiz has taken it a step further by incorporating green building practices. Students explore the intricacies of alternative energy sources, learning how to design, install and service solar hot-water and photovoltaic systems. They’re also learning sustainable construction practices using locally harvested and recycled materials.

“I watch as these kids connect, or reconnect, to nature,” says Rutiz, “and they really start to care about conservation and sustainability. I’m seeing a generation of enlightened, informed and empowered young people.”

To date, nearly 200 students have graduated from Ma Ka Hana Ke ‘Ike, and many have gone on to pursue careers in the construction trades. They aren’t just equipped with the tools they’ll need to build a future. Rutiz says they also gain something far more valuable — a sense of pride.

They get high on helping others, he says. “That’s something you can’t put a price on.”

Rutiz credits the success of the program to the unwavering support of this close-knit community, as well as the direction and dedication of Ma Ka Hana Ke ‘Ike volunteers. “All of this couldn’t have happened without their generous kokua,” he insists.

Clearly, the feeling is mutual. In 2009, the town awarded Rutiz its highest public honor, the Tiny Malaikini Mea Kokua Award. Begun in 1992 to honor the late and much-loved Hana native Viewed Paniani “Tiny” Malaikini, the award recognizes those who give “most selflessly for the good of the community.”

Casey Morondos, a recent graduate of Hana High School, went through Rutiz’s program. “He creates a lot of opportunities for his students and he helps those in need from the kindness of his heart — and the calluses on his hands.”

To learn more about Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike, visit www.hanabuild.org.

— Sarah Ruppenthal

Kuhea ParacuellesKuhea Paracuelles: Natural Catalyst

When Kuhea Paracuelles was a little girl, she knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up: a park ranger.

Playing under the ironwood trees bordering her childhood home beside Oahu’s Lake Wilson, “I’d pretend to be a park ranger or an archaeologist, even a game warden,” she recalls. “It was my forest, and I was there to protect it.”

Today, as the outreach and internship coordinator for Haleakala National Park (which encompasses both the summit area of Haleakala Crater and Kipahulu District in East Maui), Paracuelles oversees three youth internship programs for intermediate, high school and college students. In addition to day-to-day park operations, Paracuelles’s interns learn how to spot and control invasive plants, monitor endangered species, and contribute to visitor education and outreach.

“It’s an intensive, hands-on program,” she says. “We give them the tools to be effective stewards of our natural and cultural resources.”

Paracuelles hopes the internships inspire youth to consider careers in natural-resources management or other conservation fields.

She’s bound to be a source of inspiration. Paracuelles has served on the frontlines of conservation since she was in high school. Over the years, she’s coordinated outreach efforts for The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Hawaii Department of Education — among many others. She has also logged countless volunteer hours with community organizations, and hosts “The Kuhea Show,” an online video series dedicated to conservation matters.

Paracuelles says she reached a career milestone in 2007, when she was appointed Maui County environmental coordinator under then-mayor Charmaine Tavares. “It was an amazing experience,” she says. “It gave me an opportunity to bring conservation issues to the forefront.”

During her tenure, Paracuelles devised creative ways to encourage the community to rally around conservation efforts. She served as event coordinator for the 2008 International Year of the Reef celebration; and as co-chair, with founder Darrell Tanaka, for the Roi Roundup, an annual spearfishing competition aimed at eradicating this destructive invasive species from island waters.

“Kuhea is one of the few in conservation [who] combine knowledge, insight, know-how and passion into successes that have peer and public buy-in and trust,” says Fern Duvall, wildlife biologist with the state Department of Land & Natural Resources. “She has greatly informed Maui — in action, on the radio and in text — of the threats invasive species pose for our island home.”

The threats are significant. Evolving over millennia in extreme isolation, Hawaii’s native plants and animals have few defenses against those from more competitive ecosystems; the archipelago has earned the dubious distinction of being the endangered species capital of the world.

This is why Paracuelles will continue to share her message of conservation with the young interns at Haleakala National Park — and anyone else who will listen.

“I don’t want to just sing to the choir; everyone needs to be involved,” she says. “We can all be agents of change.”

— Sarah Ruppenthal

Bryon StevensBryon Stevens: Getting His Goat

In the bed of Bryon Stevens’s rattly old truck, camping gear shifts around in flakes of drying mud. His work boots don’t look like work boots anymore, they look like the sad casualties of bogs that they are. Bryon’s hard on things; he doesn’t have time to be delicate. Voracious goats are eating his island. Bryon’s got a thing about goats. And trolls. I’ll get to the trolls later.

It’s the middle of April and he’s just gotten his Twenty-Year Service certificate and pen (yes, pen) from the Department of Land and Natural Resources. Bryon Stevens is a Natural Area Reserves specialist. Every workweek he hikes or flies to a remote wrinkle of green or swatch of lava-brown way up above your head on Maui or Molokai. He will live in tents and sleep in wet clothes, eat soggy cold food, balance on ridgelines and navigate terrain so steep it would make you woozy if I described it. Sometimes he has a team. Always he has a goal: fence out the goats (and deer and pigs), replant and repair the damage done by their hooves and appetites, stitch the watershed together so the land will hold the rain again.

“Politicians are finally saying the right things about how we need to spend money to protect the watershed,” he says. “However, as great as it is to hear about building fences, more needs to happen. We need to get the goats and the pigs out; there shouldn’t be any debate.” The debate Bryon is referring to has been pretty heated. Some people see these hoofed animals, introduced to Hawaii, as a food source to be left alone to breed. On islands with no predators to knock back the numbers, however, hunting alone can’t counterbalance the damage done to the forested slopes that provide water to everyone. As one biologist put it: “Sure, you can have the goats. If that’s all you want to have.”

Bryon ticks off the items on his To Do list: “We’re doing intensive nonnative plant control at Kanaio. Building a pig-proof fence around about 3,000 acres of Hanawi Natural Area Reserve [NAR]. Just started another fencing project at Nakula NAR [on Kaupo side], and we have great dreams of removing the goats from a vast area at high elevations on Haleakala” — part of the Leeward Haleakala Watershed Restoration Partnership.

“Also, we’re working to restore relatively low-elevation rainforest on Molokai at Puu Alii NAR. Molokai has been shielded from some invasives that have gotten to the other islands, and there are people on Molokai fighting like hell to make sure that stays the case. I have a crew of young people that help me do the hard work —three guys who started as interns and were picked up as hires. We’ve had some pretty tough wahine come through the program, too. If you like roughing it and don’t mind getting dirty and sleeping in the mud for a week, there’s a place for you.

“Why be a forester if you’re not going to be in the wilderness?” He leans toward me. “You know the story of ‘Billy Goats Gruff’? You know why that troll was under the bridge? Because the goats ate all the habitat and the troll didn’t have a home. Trolls are supposed to live in the forest. I was one of the kids that worried about the troll.”

— Judy Edwards

monk sealMakana: Monk Seal Supermom

Hawaiian monk seals have been paddling around these waters for 11 million years. But over the last two hundred, they’ve been hunted for their pelts, pushed out of prime habitat, and driven to near extinction. Known to native Hawaiians as ilio holo i ka uaua, or “dog that runs in rough seas,” our official state mammal is among the most endangered animals on Earth.

Fewer than 1,100 Hawaiian monk seals exist today, and that number is dropping. Most dwell within the remote Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, where their fate looks bleak. Lobster fishers ransacked the reefs there through the 1990s, depriving juvenile seals of their preferred food. Pups commonly starve, are preyed upon by sharks, or get entangled in marine debris. Luckily, those born in the main Hawaiian Islands, where food is more plentiful, tend to fare better. Around 150 seals live here—including one nicknamed Makana, who’s doing her best to reverse her species’ slide.

When marine biologist Hannah Bernard wrote about Makana for this magazine eight years ago, the pinniped’s life was mostly a mystery. Researchers knew that she likes to haul out and nap at Hookipa Beach on Maui’s north shore. The massive, furry marine animal had been doing so for five years — snoring straight through busy windsurfing contests. Her tolerance for humans exposed her to land-based hazards such as curious dogs and indiscriminate oglers. Bernard ended her story wistfully hoping that she’d see the seal again, perhaps with a pup. Little did the biologist know, Makana was already on her way to becoming a great-grandmother!

As it turns out, Makana was known to Molokai residents as “Mama Eve.” First spotted on that island in 1996, she was seen later that year, minus a chunk of skin taken by a shark. Since she wasn’t tagged, sharp-eyed observers used her shark-bite scar to follow her movements.

It’s harder to identify seals by scars than by tags, says Thea Johanos, who monitors monk seal populations for the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. “We didn’t match ‘Makana’ to ‘Mama Eve’ until 2004.”

Scientists eschew nicknames for ID numbers; Makana’s is R006. Now biologists know that R006 travels regularly between Maui and Molokai. She’s at least twenty years old. She gave birth to a shiny black pup at Kalaupapa in 1997, and has pupped there nearly every year since, producing thirteen babies in all — more than any other monk seal on record.

For Hawaii residents, few sights are as captivating as a monk seal slumbering on the sand. The marvelous creatures deserve an uninterrupted rest. They forage along the sea floor for squid, octopus, eels, and crustaceans, holding their breath for up to twenty minutes. They typically hunt in water 200 feet deep, but have been filmed cruising below 1,700 feet amidst deep-sea corals.

Makana is predicted to pup again this July, and by now, her first pups have produced pups who’ve produced pups. Perhaps “Mother Eve” is a fitting name, after all.

— Shannon Wianecki


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