Molokai’s James Espaniola receives Kako‘o ‘Aina Award

Nature Conservancy honors those who support the land


James Espaniola, an officer with the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife, Maui District, received The Nature Conservancy’s Kako’o ‘Aina Award last month at a community gathering on Molokai.

Established in 2006, the award honors individuals who have provided significant and long-standing support for conservation in Hawaii. Kako’o ‘Aina translates to “one who supports the land.”

“If there is a conservation project happening on Molokai, it’s a pretty good bet that James Espaniola is leading or in the middle of it,” said Ulalia

Woodside, the executive director of TNC’s Hawaii Program. “For the last 20 years, he has applied his knowledge, experience, skills and work ethic to protect and advocate for the island’s natural resources. He is a true conservation warrior.”

As a division officer, Espaniola has spent the last seven years with the state’s Natural Area Reserve System, protecting special places like Olukui and Puu Alii on the Molokai’s north coast. He is also a contributing member of the East Molokai Watershed Partnership, chair of the Molokai-Maui Invasive Species Committee, state Aha Moku representative for Kalaupapa, and Molokai’s representative for the Na Ala Hele trail system.

Beyond that, Espaniola monitors streams and animal and weed control, plants native plants and builds fences. Currently, he is leading three different fencing projects within the East Molokai watershed.

At The Nature Conservancy’s Mo’omomi Preserve, Espaniola helps with nest monitoring and bird banding of the burgeoning wedgetail shearwater population. He also contributes his time and state resources for numerous community projects – providing vehicle or helicopter support, for example, to haul away the tons of marine debris collected at Molokai beach and coastal cleanups, or removing large fishing nets off the island’s coral reefs.

Born and raised on Molokai, Espaniola attended Oahu’s Kamehameha Schools as a boarder, graduating in 1999. He then served as an AmeriCorps volunteer and field technician with TNC’s Molokai Program.

After attending what was then Maui Community College, he worked for the Research Corporation of the University of Hawaii, helping manage a native plant nursery under Bill Garnett. And before joining Maui District, he spent 10 years at the Kalaupapa National Historical Park, where he helped control the axis deer population that was devouring the peninsula’s coastal vegetation.

It was at Kalaupapa that James met his future wife, Erika Stein Espaniola, now the park superintendent and mother of their two children.

Espaniola is the second Molokai resident to receive TNC’s Kako’o ‘Aina Award. Longtime cultural and environmental educator Penny Martin was honored in 2010.


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