October 2006  
Neil Hannahs, Linking People and Land in Hawaii
by Cameron Walker

According to a traditional Hawaiian story, the first child born to the Sky Father and the Earth Mother was deformed. They planted him in the ground and up grew kalo, or taro plant, which would become a staple of the Hawaiian diet.

Then, the Sky Father and the Earth Mother had a second child: the first human.

Neil Hannahs tells this story to explain the deep connection between Hawaiians and the land. "We were here second. The land was here first," he says. "Therefore the land and its resources are our elder sibling."

Hannahs directs the land assets division for Kamehameha Schools, the largest private landowner in the state of Hawaii. In the last six years, he has been leading the organization's transformation of its land management from an economically focused enterprise to a holistic strategy incorporating the environment, Hawaiian culture, education, and community into its land-use decisions.

"Most ecosystem services analyses give no more than lip service to educational and cultural values, and most businesses give no more than lip service to ecosystem service values—so Neil is really pioneering and inspiring in his efforts," says Gretchen Daily, a Stanford University environmental scientist. If he and Kamehameha Schools succeed, Daily says, they "will offer a lot to the world, guiding other places and businesses toward a sustainable path, one that restores land and culture."

Re-Defining Wealth

Most schools have a playground, a handful of basketball nets and a few tetherballs. Kamehameha Schools runs three campuses on the islands of Oahu, Maui, and Hawaii and has a $7.6 billion endowment that includes 347,415 acres of conservation and agricultural lands.

In the early 19th century, Kamehameha the Great, the school's namesake, united the Hawaiian Islands during a reign known for peace and sustainable practices. But as time went on, disease and poverty began to affect the Hawaiian people. Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the great-granddaughter of Kamehameha the Great, witnessed this decline; on her death in 1884, her bequest created schools to improve the outlook for Hawaiian children, supported by more than 400,000 acres of her inherited land. Together, these lands now provide education for some 5,000 students of Hawaiian descent in three K-through-12 campuses and another 17,000 learners in a suite of early education and community outreach programs.

While these lands became an essential part of educating generations of students, Hannahs thinks the physical and cultural connection to the land eroded over time. "In Hawaii, we live on the fringe of our islands," he says. Plantations, ranches, and conservation zones separate people in towns and suburbs along the coast from the mountains.

Hannahs grew up in the countryside of leeward Oahu. It was the ocean he knew, not the mountains, blocked by a military installation and several ranches. "We kind of lost our sense of how to get there. At least I did in my family, and I think in many others," he says. Instead, he and his friends at Kamehameha Schools focused on getting a Western education, always looking ahead to college, jobs, and the wide future instead of reconnecting with the islands and their land. But after completing undergraduate and graduate degrees at Stanford, Hannahs was drawn back to Hawaii; he started to work for his alma mater in 1974.

Beginning in the 1970s, a renaissance in Hawaiian culture generated new interest in traditional practices. People began to study Hawaiian history, resurrect the Hawaiian language (which had dwindled to a few native speakers), and transform the hula from a tourist attraction to a way to communicate Hawaiian cultural history and values.

This new awareness also got people thinking about land and its role in Hawaiian life. For most of Kamehameha Schools' first century of existence, the organization promoted development of plantations, resorts, subdivisions and commercial buildings on its land to meet the needs of a rapidly growing community and to generate income to operate its schools, Hannahs says—working with an endowment generally thought of as land-rich and cash-poor.

"We're trying to create wealth from these lands," Hannahs says. But that begs the question—what is wealth? "Is it just money, an economic measure?" he asks. "Or is wealth [also] about spiritual health, is wealth about having resources to perpetuate your culture?"

The Larger Goal

Increasingly interested by the not-so-obvious answers to these questions, Hannahs moved from education to the business side of Kamehameha Schools in 1989. Working on a master plan for urban redevelopment, he learned the business of real estate management and development: creating land-use plans, determining market values for the schools' investments and measuring returns.

All this experience gave him a comprehensive view of what was working—and what wasn't. He started realizing that many of Kamehameha Schools' problems had as much to do with how its extensive lands were being managed as they did with educational needs.

In the mid-1990s, a proposed state law brought culture and land management issues to the forefront. The proposition's goal was to ensure access and gathering rights for Hawaiians, but sought to mandate this by issuing licenses and enforcing other restrictions. "That just built to a head in our community," Hannahs says. People argued about strictures that might be placed on traditional practices.

As a result, Hannahs became part of a statewide study group that brought together stakeholders including traditional practitioners, landowners, bankers, and title companies to work on land access issues. He started to see the need for people like himself, with experience in both the business world and local communities, to facilitate understanding among these disparate groups.

With these discussions sparking his interest in rural land use, Hannahs soon found himself working in Kamehameh School's agricultural and conservation lands division. The new job came in 1997 in the midst of a leadership crisis within the organization. State and federal investigations pointed to questionable investment and other practices by the endowments' trustees. New trustees replaced the old, and as part of the transition, a strategic plan was mandated to re-envision the organization's approach to managing its assets and serving its beneficiaries.

Hannahs facilitated the development of a strategic plan for 2000–2015—one in which educational, environmental, cultural, and community returns were placed on balance with economic ones. "Historically, in the business of real estate management, your job is to attract financial capital—attract investments to your land so that your land gets developed," he says. "We still need financial capital, but I also see my job as attracting intellectual capital and cultural capital, and aligning all of this to really achieve the larger goal for ourselves."

A Conservation Showplace

A number of Kamehameha Schools' new programs have started to put these novel concepts of capital into action. In August, Kamehameha Schools became the first Hawaiian landowner to receive Forest Stewardship Council certification for its 34,600-acre Honaunau Management Area on the island of Hawaii. The schools have also formed partnerships promoting coordinated management of watersheds throughout the state.

On the windward side of Oahu, a community nonprofit group is working with the schools to restore the 88-acre He'eia fishpond that was one of the first areas inherited by Bernice Pauahi Bishop. Resting between the mouth of He'eia Stream and Kane'ohe Bay, the fishpond features a rich brackish-water environment where, hundreds of years ago, Hawaiians built a series of wooden gates controlling the flow of the water. With the ebb and flow of the tide, juvenile fish entered the pond attracted to these prime feeding grounds; people working at the fishpond fed the young fish and allowed them to grow with minimal risk of predation.

As these fish matured, they would try to find their way to the open ocean through the gates, where they were easily trapped. People took some fish for food and allowed others to return to the ocean to reproduce. More recently, netlike root systems of invasive mangroves began to punch holes in the pond's walls and clog the freshwater stream that feeds the pond.

As part of Kamehameha Schools' new focus, community members now manage the pond and educate local students about Hawaiian cultural practices and history. Students at the fishpond also conduct scientific research to understand how varying environmental conditions affect the fishpond's natural resources. In September, the Friends of He'eia Fishpond had their first fundraiser sale of moi, or Pacific threadfin, grown in the pond. The group also sells edible seaweed and mangrove seedlings (as aquarium decorations), and offers mangrove wood, used for firewood and traditional activities like halau construction and hula sticks, to farmers and traditional practitioners. The result: people who are "connected to their lands, engaged in positions of responsibility, starting to take care of a resource, and starting to take care of families and communities," Hannahs says.

Elsewhere, too, restoration is afoot on the school's landholdings. As part of a partnership with the Nature Conservancy and other agencies, land-use managers have been working on Kauai to preserve lowland forests with dozens of native shrub and tree species, and on their lands at Keauhou Ranch on the Big Island, trying to rehabilitate the land after years of intensive cattle grazing and logging.

"There was a complete refocusing of their energy on how to take care of the land," says Rob Shallenberger, conservation director for the Nature Conservancy on the island of Hawaii. "[Keauhou Ranch] was not a showplace for conservation," he says. "But now, it is."

Making Connections

At a September conference at Stanford University, Hannahs and others from Hawaii took their conservation showcase on the road. Meeting with indigenous land managers from New Zealand and with university researchers, they shared ideas about how to value ecosystem services, economics and culture simultaneously. The intention is to nurture indigenous research managers to bring their cultural understanding and tie it in with business, local and global environments, and communications.

People met to discuss business strategies that could be used in enhancing cultural and environmental assets, and also talked with scientists to learn more about global change and how it could affect local environments, and local land management. "You're sitting on an atoll in the middle of the Pacific and wondering why the ocean's rising," Hannahs says. "You need to recognize the global forces and trends that are creating issues for you." Stanford scholars, in turn, were interested in the perspectives of these visitors who work closely with the land on a local level.

"I learned a long time ago that people don't care how much you know unless they know how much you care," Hannahs says. "I think it's fairly transparent that we care a lot about what we're doing, and that's really helpful."

The care that Hannahs and others put into creating their lands' values, in all its forms, not only renews the tie to the land that has existed in story and in practice, but preserves the islands and the services they provide for the future. Kamehameha Schools' renewed vision of land as an essential part of Hawaiian culture will be passed along to its students, creating a less-tenuous future for islands threatened by environmental issues from invasive species to deforestation. "As we revive our culture and reconnect ourselves to the land, we then develop a really broad environmental awareness and sensitivity among a generation of students in a land that is increasingly taxed in terms of its carrying capacity," Hannahs says.