Story by Lara McGlashan
We see it every day — when we’re driving to work, going grocery shopping or having a morning paddle — the stout, gentle slope of our dormant volcano rising more than 10,000 feet into the sky. It’s easy to take it for granted, regard it simply as part of the landscape, but Haleakalā is more than a geographical feature or a tourist destination. It is an integral component of our community, something to be respected and revered.
“Haleakalā is a critical ecosystem unto itself and plays an important part in the Hawaiian culture,” says J. Scott Meidell, president of Haleakalā Ranch Company and former trustee and president of the Historic Hawai‘i Foundation. “It is a critical part of our wellbeing as residents to be able to go to a place like Haleakalā and experience the wonders it contains.”
In 2019, Meidell and other community leaders formed the Haleakalā Conservancy, a nonprofit philanthropic partner that functions to fill the gap between what the government is able to provide within its budget and what the park actually needs to protect its resources and host the public.
“The National Park system has been around for a long time, and the larger, more visited parks have philanthropic partners that help support projects that might otherwise go unfunded,” explains Olena Horcajo Alec, Maui native and executive director for the Conservancy. “So, while Haleakalā does receive monies from the government and has its own entrance fees, it simply is not enough. That’s where we come in, to provide additional critical funding for the park.”
On a granular level, the Conservancy raises money for programs created by park staff. “They give us a list of projects they recommend and we choose those we feel we can take on and make a difference,” says board member Jamie Woodburn.
Some of the initiatives they have already funded are refurbishing the nēnē (Hawaiian goose) pen and producing a video about Maui’s endemic birds. The Conservancy and the park also worked with bird biologist Chris Warren to design 16 song meters, autonomous recording units which will be distributed across the leeward slopes of the volcano to collect birdsong over a period of several months. These recordings will help provide a more accurate count of the endangered kiwikiu (Maui parrotbill), whose total population at last count numbered between 150 and 200 individuals.
“Hawai‘i is the extinction capital of the world,” says Meidell, who also serves as the president of the board of directors for the Conservancy. “It occupies one-tenth of 1 percent of the land mass of the U.S., but has the vast majority of the country’s critically endangered plants and animals. These statistics keep getting worse, year by year. Our park staff are designing creative ways to stop these trends, and we want to be there to help.”
Recently, the Conservancy raised funds to support two yearlong, paid internships. “These interns will be considered full-time park staff,” says Alec. “It is a great opportunity for local youth to be plugged into the conservation sector.”
Which brings us to the overarching goal of the Conservancy: bridging the gap between the park and the Maui community.
“Natalie Gates, the superintendent of Haleakalā National Park, pulled me aside during a conservation presentation and remarked that it would be great to have a philanthropic partner that connects the people with the park,” says Meidell. “There are two entities with needs here: an incredible national park that is facing extinction issues and invasive species, and the community and its need to experience the astonishment, solitude and inspiration the park provides.”
Fueled by their passion for the ‘āina (land), the flora and fauna that exist on the crater, and the cultural and environmental integrity of Haleakalā, the Conservancy strives to provide the facilities, experiences and services that will help accomplish that goal.
“When I talk to people, especially young people, who grew up in the shadow of this mountain, I discover that many haven’t ever been up there, never experienced the grandeur and awe that is Haleakalā,” says Meidell. “It’s a destination for more than
1 million visitors every year, but it also should be a must-visit destination for residents to discover the wonders of our own home. It is an integral component of our community and culture that confers a certain amount of health and happiness just by being there.”
“There is something therapeutic in protecting natural spaces that resonates with us on a primal level,” adds Woodburn. “There’s a deep satisfaction in preserving this resource, and giving kids the opportunity to learn about this incredible ecosystem we have in our own backyard.”
The ultimate hope of the Conservancy is to convey the message that Haleakalā is
more than just a tourist destination. “The crater is a very important part of our community in terms of pride of association, and we are thrilled to be able to participate in that,” says Meidell.
“We are just getting started, but we intend to be around for hundreds of years,” says Alec. “We are following this grand tradition of conservancies across the U.S., and it is incredibly exciting to be here as we take our first steps.”