The sweat was rolling down my face as I stared intently at the green leaf. Did it meet the criteria? I picked up my example leaf and placed it next to the one that held my gaze. I compared it – were the points of the leaves the same? Was the stem the same? The color? Yes. I grabbed at the base of the stem where it grew out of the red soil and pulled. One more invasive plant gone!
It might seem counter-intuitive for me to spend my holiday time in Hawaii pulling invasive plants from protected lands – but I love these islands. They are a unique little world that feels nothing like the US and provide us such beauty in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean. Mere dots engulfed by the ocean. I love coming to the Hawaiian Islands to escape, get a dose of culture, relaxation, and really get away. I don’t have to be a resident to care about what happens to them.
Instead of spending another day as the typical tourist surfing, sunbathing, rowing, or sight-seeing on Haleakala – I took a big turn off the tourist trail and decided to spend my morning volunteering in Maui. That turn took me to the office of Hawaiian Island Land and Trust (HILT) where protecting the Hawaiian land and cultures of the land are their number one goal. Their mission:
To protect the lands that sustain us for current and future generations.
Our promise, audacious: Perpetuity.
I met Scott at the office and he provided me an overview of HILT’s mission, vision, programs, and a view of the HILT lands on Maui. I was there to learn more about HILT, but also to volunteer on Maui and do something to give back. HILT has a team of local volunteers who come out and work on the various areas clearing invasive plants every week and this week I was going to join them. I took Scott’s advice and wore long pants, sturdy shoes, hat, and brought sunscreen – I was ready to get dirty! And I was really excited for this change of pace to my normal Maui itinerary.
Today’s volunteering spot was Waihee Coastal Dunes and Wetland Refuge. The refuge is one of the most significant cultural sites in the state. Like most land in Hawaii, it was once slated for development (as a destination golf resort), but now will be forever protected thanks to HILT. Granted – I love tourism, if it weren’t for tourism I wouldn’t be able to do what I do. However, I also worry about what tourism does to us. Capitalism can be a beautiful and ugly thing in tourism. The ugly side brings with it overdevelopment, it drives out the real culture and people, and often times replaces the real people and culture with manufactured culture…ahem…Luau. (see what a real local luau is about). Does Hawaii really need another golf course? Probably not. But preserving the Heiau’s, old taro fields, and ways of Hawaiian farming is important. That’s why I loved what HILT stands for. On islands who’s #1 industry is tourism, work like this is important else it could end up an island of high rises and beachfronts.
As Scott drove me out to Waihee Wetland Refuge he shared a wealth of information about history, culture, plants, and the land. In fact I felt as if I were back in school as he often used the formal names for all of the plant species that left me trying to reach far, far back in my memory bank of some class I took in grade school. Even if I couldn’t remember all of the scientific names of the plants, it was important to know the difference between indigenous ( it occurs there naturally. It is a native but can be found elsewhere), endemic (only found in Hawaii), and non-native (does not naturally occur there – brought in by others). Scott pointed out various non-native/invasive plants as we drove through the refuge. He also pointed out the areas where they had already cleared the non-native plants – they looked completely different to me. In this environment, clearing invasive plants is a never-ending process – which is why a team of dedicated volunteers is necessary.
It was time to begin my hands-on work. Scott pulled up an invasive plant that sort of looked like a carrot top. He handed it to me and said, “We normally find it easiest for people to look for one type of plant and pull it – this is what you are looking for today.”
I had my mission and quickly got to work! It was hot, and I really appreciated his advice of wearing long pants else it would have been quite itchy, but the work was rewarding. Another positive outcome of volunteering was it was a great way to meet locals as many of the volunteers were locals who come out weekly. As you pull invasive weeds you can chat with locals and learn more about history as well as get tips on where to eat and what to do on the island. As we worked, Scott pointed out where the fish ponds used to be and the old village/settlements, and explained the ancient farming and land division practices. It is believed that this part of Maui was home to one of the oldest settlements on the island. He said that they regularly dig up fish hooks and other artifacts as they work on the land. As I worked and listened, I definitely felt more connected to the land.
In addition to HILT’s mission to protect the ecologically, culturally significant land – they also make this land available to the public. Each HILT property offers campsites to use for free. All you have to do is get in touch with HILT (via their website) and get the key to the property and let them know you will be out there camping in the designated area. The Waihee Coastal Dunes and Wetland Refuge had a gorgeous campground on the beach with showers and facilities there and a person who lives on the land and oversees it. In addition, many of the HILT properties have hiking trails and sometimes guided hikes are offered.
My morning spent with HILT was easily the most rewarding thing I did while on Maui. This is a tradition I will continue as I visit other islands. It’s unique, local, physical, and educational – which is exactly what I look for in my travels. Plus, it will put some dirt under your fingernails and connect you to this beautiful chain of islands in the middle of the Pacific more than ever.
How can you volunteer?
Contact HILT directly to see if you can join in on one of their activities. More volunteering info here.
No effort is too small and you can get involved on ANY of the islands.
Pacific Whale Foundation offers volunteering initiatives for tourists including HILT activities.
To learn more about the free camping spots, contact HILT
If you visit the islands often like I do – please consider becoming a member of HILT – and become a part of Hawaii.
Disclosure: I was a guest of Maui Visitor Bureau for this trip. However all of the opinions expressed here are my own. I was able to choose my own activities that were of interest to me and my style of travel.