Meet the Conservation Champions at the Trust for Public Land

The Trust for Public Land is hoping to complete its 50th project this year to celebrate 50 years in the 50th state.


Hi Alakoko Fishpond 1 Tina Aiu

Photo: Courtesy of The Trust For Public Land/Christina Aiu


Many Hawai‘i residents have never heard of the Trust for Public Land. Yet, we know many of the places that this San Francisco-based national nonprofit has helped to protect over the past 50 years.


For its first project in Hawai‘i, completed in 1979, TPL saved 268.5 acres, which includes an important heiau in Kalapana on Hawai‘i Island. Before that project, the land the heiau is on was at risk of being turned into a housing development. In 1988, it helped expand the critical habitat at Kīlauea Point National Wildlife Refuge on Kaua‘i by more than 130 shoreline acres. The refuge is home to endangered Hawaiian monk seals and Laysan albatrosses. And in 2007, TPL purchased Moanalua Valley and transferred ownership to the state, preserving one of the last open spaces in urban Honolulu and ending a 30-year community struggle over threatened development in the valley.


The trust essentially does behind-the-scenes real estate work, explains Lea Hong, the organization’s Hawai‘i director, including helping to identify lands for protection and securing funding to purchase those lands. The team works with landowners on negotiating fair prices and handles the legal aspects of any deals.


To date, the Hawai‘i chapter has completed 49 projects that protect more than 77,000 acres across the state. Hong is hoping to close its 50th project this year to mark the nonprofit’s 50th anniversary in the 50th state.


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The project aims to buy a 10,000-square-foot parcel of kuleana land adjacent to the Halulu Fishpond in Waipā on Kaua‘i, where it will provide access for cultural and conservation purposes. Right now, the nonprofit Waipā Foundation manages the pathway through the vacant lot so people can access the fishpond for educational purposes and farming. The plan is for TPL to buy the parcel from the Waioli Corp., which owns the land, and hand it over to the Waipā Foundation. Absent a deal, the coveted property on Hanalei Bay will likely become the site of another oceanfront mansion.


That’s what almost happened to Pōhue Bay on Hawai‘i Island. Hong says it took years of working with different landowners of the 16,451 acres in Ka‘ū—the last of whom wanted to build a resort on the property. Hong even flew to Beverly Hills to meet him at his office, but he refused to see her.


“One of our slogans is it takes 1,000 cups of coffee or beer to develop relationships,” Hong says. “In my case, I just wore the guy down. In the end, because of the community’s passionate opposition to the resort concept and all the cultural and natural resources that were bringing obstacle after obstacle to the landowner, it just didn’t make economic sense for him to proceed anymore.”


Last year, TPL bought the land for $9.4 million. It is now part of Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park.


“The projects we do are really community driven, and they’re lasting,” Hong says. “It’s extremely rewarding to work with community members who are so committed, so passionate, so knowledgeable, so tied to the land and its history and culture. We’re making a lasting contribution in a small but significant way to protect that land forever.”


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