Sierra Club honorees saved land and water

Lifetime achievement awards handed out to four Mauians

Marti Townsend (from left), director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii, presents the Ed Stevens Award for Lifetime Achievement to Art Medeiros, alongside Annette Kaohelaulii, former chairwoman of Sierra Club of Hawaii, and Lucienne De Naie, conservation chairwoman of the Sierra Club Maui Group. Medeiros was among nine Maui residents recognized for their conservation efforts at the Sierra Club’s annual meeting on Sunday. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

PAIA — Conservationists who have brought back the forests, saved land from developments, worked on Kahoolawe and restored water to streams were honored Sunday by the Sierra Club Maui Group.

Art Medeiros received the Ed Stevens Lifetime Achievement Award from the statewide chapter of the Sierra Club. Martha Vockrodt-Moran, Tony Ramil and Burt Sakata received Onipa’a awards from the Maui chapter for a lifetime of conservation efforts.

Vernon Kalanikau, Koa Hewahewa, Elle Cochran, Hokuao Pellegrino and Lele Simon received the club’s yearly awards for their efforts to protect the island’s natural resources.

For many awardees, the fruits of their labor have been a long time coming. Medeiros, founder of the Auwahi Forest Restoration Project, recalled how the leeward slopes of Haleakala were “a tree museum,” basically dead, when he first started the project two decades ago.

Medeiros wanted to bring back the understory around the trees. He thought nobody would care. But volunteers started to show up, and the forest took shape. From 1997 to 2012, native shrub cover increased from 3 percent to 82 percent.

Martha Vockrodt-Moran (left), who runs the arboretum at Pu‘u Mahoe started by her grandfather David Fleming, accepts the Onipa‘a award for lifetime achievement alongside Lucienne De Naie, conservation chairwoman of the Sierra Club Maui Group. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

“To me, the main thing is that the babies (of the trees) started coming back,” Medeiros said. “That’s the thing that could make me cry as a biologist.”

Now when he takes people hiking through the area, there’s a noticeable difference between the hot, dry brush and the cool confines of the restored dryland forest.

“When people care, it’s almost like nature meets you halfway,” Medeiros said.

Ramil is another longtime conservationist, Sierra Club member and avid hiker who used to trek from Kihei to Central Maui “just to see what you could see,” Sierra Club conservation chairwoman Lucienne De Naie recalled. Ramil raised awareness of history and environment, authoring a book on Maui County’s history that’s now out of print. He also advocated to make Makena into a state park and was among the first group of civilians to spend time on Kahoolawe.

“When I look at this award, I will remember these people,” Ramil said, mentioning Emmett Aluli, Hokulani Padilla, Mary Evanson and many others.

Burt Sakata, the first president of Hui o Na Wai ‘Eha, speaks after receiving his Onipa‘a award for lifetime achievement. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

Like Medeiros, Vockrodt-Moran and Hewahewa also were honored for their plant and forest restoration efforts.

Vockrodt-Moran runs the D.T. Fleming Arboretum at Pu’u Mahoe, a haven for dozens of rare and endangered plant species. Her grandfather, David Fleming, first had the vision back in the 1950s to set aside the area for conservation.

“Any award to me is an award to my grandfather and all our volunteers,” Vockrodt-Moran said.

She recalled how her family would hold “famous turkey lunches” for the 50 to 60 volunteers who came to the arboretum every six months to help clear the land. When Vockrodt-Moran inherited the place from her parents, she focused on plant propagation and seed collection with some very rare trees in danger of dying out.

Hewahewa, meanwhile, is the director of forestry operations for Hokunui Maui, a land management group working to develop 258 acres in Piiholo into a regenerative farming community. Hewahewa and his family are native reforestation experts working to grow canoe crops and native trees on the property.

Tony Ramil, a longtime Sierra Club member, said his Onipa‘a award would remind him of the people he spent time with during efforts to restore Kahoolawe. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

Hewahewa said he just lost “my last kupuna” last week, and that the award honored them. He said his mission is to provide opportunities for his keiki in the future.

“Because we cannot keep training our kids to aloha aina and malama the wai if they don’t have that opportunity,” he said.

Other awardees have advocated for the island’s water resources. Sakata was the first president of Hui o Na Wai ‘Eha and helped grow the fledgling organization into a successful effort to restore “the four great waters” of Central Maui.

A kalo farmer from Waihee, Sakata is also known for his work on Kahoolawe and for intervening on plans for a golf course that instead became the Waihe’e Coastal Dunes and Wetlands Refuge under the Hawaiian Islands Land Trust.

“When I intervened in Waihee, I never thought it would take nine years,” Sakata said. “You just got to get in there and just do what you can. Even if you lose, you put it on record, because that could serve you or somebody in the future. So, very important to testify and put things on the record.”

Sakata’s eventual successor was Pellegrino, the current president of Hui o Na Wai ‘Eha, whom De Naie called “a shining example” of the Hawaiian immersion education system. Pellegrino, winner of the Ola I Ka Wai award, has been instrumental in “the last leg” of efforts to restore the streams, De Naie said.

Pellegrino said that his great-grandfather four generations back, Na’ili’ili Kane, was one of the last konohiki of the Wailuku ahupua’a.

“The work that I do day in and day out, whether it’s my full-time job or work at our farm or the work with our hui, he always is at the forefront of my mind and the work that I’ve done,” Pellegrino said. “In addition to that is my own parents that have really reared me with the values to aloha everybody.”

Cochran, the former County Council member from West Maui, also was honored with the Malama Kahakai award for being a “true champion of our oceans and waters.” Cochran recalled how her efforts to save Honolua Bay from development launched her career into politics.

“Sierra Club also has been there from Day 1, from when I started running for office, getting into office,” she said. “(They) believed in me and what I stood for and where my heart, soul and passion was involved.”

Cochran, who gave up her council seat to run for mayor last year and eventually lost to Michael Victorino, said it’s been “very eye-opening” from the outside looking in, and that she’s trying to get more educated and testify on issues at the state Legislature. She’s also been staying busy with Waiola Church and is interested in maybe leading out a pilot program for tiny homes in West Maui. Much of her time these days is spent caring for her 93-year-old mother, whom she called “the foundation I stand upon.”

Other awardees spread awareness and education. Kalanikau, the po’o of the Aha Moku Council for Kula Kai, received the Malama ‘Aina award for his recent efforts to install signs in South Maui educating people on the ahupua’a, or land division system, in the area. Kalanikau worked with Council Chairwoman Kelly King and the Kihei Community Association to install the first sign in October.

De Naie said that Kalanikau is also the person that residents in the area come to when they see activity that seems out of place or that might impact the environment.

“It’s hard to keep up,” Kalanikau said. “You think you got two issues down this week, and then come Friday get five more. We got a lot of action going on in our moku. We try to take care of what’s in our moku, and everybody else should do the same thing.”

Meanwhile, Simon received the Aloha ‘Aina Award for founding the Malamalama Maui Project, inspired by the ongoing transition of 36,000 acres of former sugar cane land. The project aims to collect “36,000 wishes, creative visions and proactive solutions, straight from the heart of the people of Maui, and beyond.”

Simon, who raises awareness through art and song, said that it was “a little bit awkward” to accept the award because she grew up watching her mother advocate for the community and never expect recognition in return.

“I used to think that if people would just know Hawaiian culture . . . we wouldn’t experience the issues we have with our aina right now,” Simon said. “I thought it was that simple. But actually, I learned over the last two years, it’s not that simple anymore.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@maui news.com.

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