A Conversation with Lea Hong, TPL associate vice president and Hawaiʻi state director
The Trust for Public Land is a national nonprofit organization working to protect land as parks and open space. They are not a government agency, although they sometimes work with agencies to protect land.
The Trust for Public Land was formed in 1972 – what needs were the founders trying to address?
Hong: Since 1972, Trust for Public Land (TPL) has worked nationwide to connect everyone to the benefits and joys of the outdoors. We focus our work in communities where parks and public lands are needed most.
How long has TPL operated in Hawaiʻi and what was its first project?
Hong: In 1979, TPL completed its first project in Hawaiʻi, growing Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park by almost 270 acres. Since then, our work has expanded to nearly every Hawaiian island, helping communities on Maui, Kauaʻi, Hawaiʻi Island, Molokaʻi and Oʻahu. In the nearly 50 years that we’ve been working in Hawaiʻi, we’ve protected and conserved more than 59,000 acres and 47 special, culturally significant places.
What is the role of Trust for Public Land relative to that of government agencies such as the State Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) or the National Park Service?
Hong: We’re committed to creating parks and protecting land for people to ensure healthy, livable communities for generations to come. Through community engagement and programs that reconnect people to the land, we hope to improve the wellbeing of Native Hawaiians and the broader community here in Hawaiʻi.
TPL does not own or manage land. We are truly a partnership organization – so to that end, we’re proud to work with government agencies, partner organizations and nonprofits who steward protected lands in partnership with local communities.
How does TPL determine which projects/land purchases to pursue?
Hong: Our commitment to improving communities drives every decision we make. Our decision-making process on how and where to build new parks and protect threatened lands is determined by collaboration with community groups and public officials, innovative data collection and sharing, and cultivating strong philanthropic and political relationships to foster investment.
What are some of TPL’s current projects?
Hong: The goal of our Parks for People Program is to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to connect with the outdoors within a 10-minute walk of their home, and we have a pilot project at ʻAʻala Park. Our Sustainable Hawaiʻi Program supports self-sufficiency, abundant food production, and protection of our water resources by working to help Hawaiʻi develop the capacity to feed and nourish its people, provide ample clean drinking water now and in the future, and enhance the nearshore water quality of our ocean. To do this, we purchase agricultural, watershed, and coastal lands in partnership with public and nonprofit partners committed to local food production, conservation, and/or water quality, and we secure conservation easements over productive agricultural land or conservation land that prevents future development and encourages improved management. Through this program, we are currently working on projects in Maui, including coastal land near Maʻalaea Bay and the Nā Wai ʻEhā watershed lands.
What is TPL’s Aloha ʻĀina Program?
Hong: The Aloha ʻĀina Program reconnects people to their ancestors, culture, history and each other. Established through a start-up grant from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs in the mid-2000s, the program is especially for Native Hawaiian communities trying to protect lands that perpetuate Hawaiian culture and, in many cases, return ownership and stewardship to Native Hawaiian led organizations. Thanks to OHA’s initial and visionary investment, Trust for Public Land has partnered with many Native Hawaiian communities to protect and return unique and sacred places across the state to community stewardship.
The Trust for Public Land “TPL,” should not be confused with “PLT” which refers to the Public Land Trust, which is completely different. The PLT was a hot topic during the past legislative session (see the article about the PLT on page 7).
The Trust for Public Land’s Aloha ʻĀina Program has returned land to the ownership and stewardship of the following Native Hawaiian organizations:
- Ala Kahakai Trail Association, Waikapuna & Kaunāmano, Hawaiʻi Island
- Aloha Kuamoʻo ʻĀina, Kuamoʻo Battlefield & Burial Grounds, Hawaiʻi Island
- Hālawa Valley Land Trust, Hālawa Valley parcels, Molokaʻi
- Hoʻāla ʻĀina Kūpono, Hakipuʻu Loʻi Kalo, Oʻahu
- Ka Lau Ona One O Puna, Puna, Kahaualeʻa, Hawaiʻi Island
- Kaʻala Cultural Learning Center, Waiʻanae, Oʻahu
- Livable Hawaiʻi Kai Hui, Hāwea Heiau, Keawāwa Wetlands & Ka Iwi Coast Ma Uka Lands, Oʻahu
- MAʻO Organic Farm (three projects), Lualualei, Oʻahu
- Makani Kamakani O Kohala, Kauhola Point, Hawaiʻi Island
- Mālama Hulēʻia, Alakoko Fishpond, Kauaʻi
- Maunalua Fishpond Heritage Center, Kānewai Spring, Oʻahu
- Office of Hawaiian Affairs/Hiʻipaka LLC, Waimea Valley & Puʻukua, Oʻahu
- Office of Hawaiian Affairs, lands surrounding Kūkaniloko in Central Oʻahu
- Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Wao Kele O Puna, Hawaiʻi Island
Current/pending Aloha ʻĀina projects include:
- Ala Kahakai Trail Association, Kiolakaʻa, Hawaiʻi Island
- Hawaiʻi Land Trust/AlohaʻĀina Health Center, Kāneʻohe, Oʻahu
- Hoʻokuaʻāina, Palawai, Maunawili, Oʻahu
- Kauluakalana, Makaliʻi, Maunawili, Oʻahu
- Waipā Foundation, Halulu Fishpond Access, Kauaʻi