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High hopes for Haleakala

Neighbors: Profiles of our community

Olena Alec is the new executive director of the Haleakala Conservancy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that provides funding for critical projects and programs that preserve and protect Haleakala National Park. Photos courtesy of Olena Alec

It’s National Park Week 2021, and to mark the occasion, here’s a trivia question: Which park encompasses more than 33,000 acres, has a variety of microclimates and is home to more endangered species than any other national park in the U.S.?

If you answered Haleakala National Park, give yourself a pat on the back.

Vast, rugged and jaw-droppingly beautiful, the park is a geological marvel and biological wonderland. For as long as she can remember, Iao Valley resident Olena Alec has cherished this natural treasure.

“Haleakala National Park has been a source of endless memories from my childhood,” she said. “Whether hiking through the crater with my family or camping out in Kipahulu, the park has served as an integral part of my formative years, catalyzing my desire to protect and preserve our natural world.”

So when she learned of an opportunity to help safeguard the park and its resources, she seized it.

Olena Alec and her brother, Kainoa, are happy campers in Haleakala National Park in 1989. Alec has fond childhood memories of hiking through Haleakala Crater and camping in Kipahulu with her family.

Alec recently became the first executive director of the Haleakala Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that raises funds for park-directed conservation, preservation and education projects. Formed in 2019 as the philanthropic partner to Haleakala National Park, the conservancy supports vital projects that can’t otherwise be funded through government support and visitor fees alone. Projects run the gamut from endangered species monitoring to trail maintenance to educational programs for local youth — and everything in between.

Last fall, the conservancy’s board of directors launched a search for an executive director to take the helm of the fledgling nonprofit. Serendipitously, Alec had just returned home to Maui and decided to throw her name in the hat. The board agreed she was a natural fit for the role.

Alec holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from the University of Southern California and a master’s degree in environmental science and policy from Columbia University. Over the years, she’s put her passion for the natural world into action as an environmental education program director, a teacher naturalist and a Peace Corps environmental educator in rural Nicaragua, among other positions. Most recently, she was the director of engagement for The Climate Reality Project, a Washington, D.C.-headquartered climate advocacy nonprofit founded by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore.

Today, as executive director of the Haleakala Conservancy, Alec is in her element.

“This is exactly what I’d hoped to do upon moving back to Maui,” she said. “I want to give back to the community that gave so much to me.”

In its relatively short existence, the conservancy has already made headway. A few priority projects are in progress, including the production of a documentary-style educational video about rare birds on Maui that are susceptible to avian malaria, along with the refurbishment of a dilapidated nene pen that serves the population of nene on the north side of the summit. (Rebuilding the pen will mitigate nene mortality.) Additionally, the conservancy supports the park’s E Ola Koa program, a yearlong internship that prepares participants for careers in conservation.

And that’s only the beginning. There are more projects and programs on the horizon, and as a Haleakala Conservancy donor, you can help bring them to life. To learn more about the conservancy and its priority projects or to inquire about donor opportunities, visit haleakalaconservancy.org, email hello@haleakalaconservancy.org or call (808) 757-9436.

* Sarah Ruppenthal is a Maui-based writer. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at missruppenthal@gmail.com. Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.

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