Trae Menard and his team spend much of their time building fences in Hawaii’s upper watersheds to guard against feral pigs, goats and other hoofed invaders.

They sweep for invasive weeds and other plants harmful to the local ecology, stopping them before they can spread.

“It’s kind of like a virus — early detection, rapid response,” Menard, The Nature Conservancy’s local director of forest conservation, recently noted.

Last Wednesday, the team joined a meeting on what happens if the public and private funding sources that allow them to help protect the islands’ water supplies dry up due to COVID-19. Their 20 or so members manage 40,000 acres across Hawaii.

A volunteer works on a fence to protect a forest on Kauai from hooved animals. Fencing will remain a top priority for The Nature Conservancy. Courtesy of The Department of Land and Natural Resources

“We’re going to do the best we can do with what we have,” Menard said afterward, adding that fencing and fire prevention will be their top priorities.

“We need to keep some funding going into this, because if we can’t maintain it we’ll be losing a lot.”

The pandemic has, for now, decimated Hawaii’s tourism-dependent economy — leaving about a quarter of its labor force jobless based on official counts. Local conservation groups and some lawmakers further worry the so-called “pancession” could deplete what limited public and private funding was there before to help protect the islands’ natural resources.

However, those groups also see a chance to nearly double the state’s green jobs through a new statewide “conservation corps,” launched with pandemic recovery dollars. The state’s renewable energy sector has taken a hit but appears poised overall to weather COVID-19. And some other habitat projects have been hurt by the virus.

Kamalo - Kapualei fence construction, East Molokai Watershed Partnership
Workers with the East Molokai Watershed Partnership erect a fence on Molokai to protect against hoofed animals. Grady Timmons, The Nature Conservancy

The Legislature, meanwhile, will be forced to make tough choices on what programs get the scant dollars available when it reconvenes next week.

“I definitely am concerned about that, and we need to come to grips with that reality,” said Sen. Mike Gabbard, who chairs the Senate Agriculture and Environment Committee.

Gabbard, as well as other local officials and advocates, has expressed hope to create something like a Hawaii conservation corps.

It could give many out-of-work hospitality employees the chance to switch careers, joining a sector that’s not as vulnerable to economic swings, they say. With stimulus dollars in play, the idea isn’t just pie in the sky, they add — it’s possible.

“Now’s the time,” said Jack Kittinger, a Hawaii-based senior director with the nonprofit Conservation International.

Pushing For A Greener Recovery

Last week, Kittinger and a coalition of about 30 private and public conservation groups put together a proposal that they estimate would create as many as 3,900 jobs on about 180 shovel-ready projects aimed at safeguarding Hawaii forests, watersheds and other resources.

As much as $470 million in government pandemic stimulus funding would finance those jobs over the next several years under the proposal, which was made public Friday.

In the long term, the positions could be covered with “visitor green fees,” a system that directly charges tourists to help maintain the fragile ecology.

Kittinger acknowledged Monday that visitor fees could be a tough sell with some of the state’s political leaders, requiring more persuasion later. For now, the goal is to get stimulus dollars.

“Let’s get something done under an emergency that puts people to work,” he said. The coalition’s main focus is the Legislature, and it aims to approach those lawmakers to consider funding before they reconvene next week.

“It’s going to be a wild discussion for sure” with other urgent priorities to address, Kittinger said. But job creation will be in the discussion, too. “We want to be a part of that,” he said.


Hawaii Kai East Oahu Maunalua Bay aerial.
A jobs program coming out of the Great Recession, funded with federal stimulus dollars, helped remove invasive algae from some 28 acres of coral reef in Maunalua Bay, on Oahu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In Washington, Congress and federal agencies are also moving forward with plans to fund more natural resource management and service corps programs, though it’s not clear yet whether those plans will succeed.

Such a corps would resemble Depression-era job-creation programs from nearly a century ago, plus more recent efforts to help revive the economy after the Great Recession.

In Maunalua Bay, for instance, local groups used $3.4 million in American Recovery Act dollars in 2009 to help remove invasive algae from some 28 acres of coral reef habitat, officials say. The dollars helped create dozens of jobs, they say, but those jobs don’t still exist.

There are lessons to take from that last major stimulus, said Beth Osborne, director of the nonprofit Transportation for America and a former deputy at the U.S. Department of Transportation. It’s important to study whether projects are still relevant coming out of the pandemic — and whether they’ll really create sustainable jobs, she said.

In 2009, “We did not design our spending to accomplish our goal, which was creating and preserving jobs quickly. We just took projects off the shelf that were not created for job support,” Osborne told the state’s Climate Commission last month. 

There’s a new groundswell of interest in Hawaii to pursue careers in conservation, said Kupu Executive Director John Leong. The local nonprofit Kupu runs the state’s only accredited youth conservation corps program, he said.

It’s also part of the coalition pushing for a new green-jobs corps.

Usually, Kupu gets two applications for each of the 140 slots available in its yearlong program, which starts in the fall. Participants help restore habitats and remove invasive species, Leong said, as well as GIS mapping and trail work.

This year, the group has already received 1,000 applications, he said.

Leong suspects the spike is due to the current economic climate. “The environment will continue to have its needs, regardless of where our economy goes,” Leong said Monday. “So having young people help fill that void … is super important.”

Clean Energy Goals On Track, For Now

So far, the pandemic doesn’t appear to have hindered Hawaii’s long-term goal to power the islands with virtually all renewable energy sources by 2045, industry representatives and advocates say.

Hawaiian Electric reports that it’s moving along with its 16 large-scale renewable projects, including nine on Oahu.

Some of the developers negotiating those contracts have told the state Public Utilities Commission that the virus has created some uncertainty thanks to the pandemic.

Nonetheless, HECO says those projects are progressing. “There’s no indication at this point that the economic downturn might hinder progress on the final award of any of the contracts,” company spokeswoman Shannon Tangonan said in an email last week.

Some rooftop solar industry officials, meanwhile, say they’re starting to see increased demand and record daily sales in Hawaii despite the pancession.

Solar Photo voltaic near Dole Wahiawa1
Solar voltaic panels line the landscape in Wahiawa. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The interest seems to stem from families spending so much extra time at home in recent months, said Robert Harris, public policy director at the solar energy company Sunrun.

“I think there’s a sincere potential for growth” in Hawaii, Harris said. It depends on policymakers — whether they keep in place tax credits and overhaul the local, cumbersome permitting process to encourage more customers to buy, he said.

Not all solar companies are smoothly weathering the storm. Haleakala Solar’s parent company just filed for bankruptcy — although the company said it remains committed to boosting jobs and sales in the islands once the restructuring is complete, Pacific Business News reports.

Sunrun saw sales drop 40% in March when the pandemic hit and it had to furlough some of its local sales workers, Harris said. Subsequently, the company has seen high demand and has started to bring those workers back, he added.

The state already boasts the most rooftop solar in the country per capita. About one-third of all single-family homes in Hawaii have solar panels, Harris said. Eventually, all of those roofs will need to have panels if the state is to hit its 2045 goal, he added.

The new conservation corps proposal doesn’t include new renewable energy jobs, but the two sectors can advance in tandem, Harris said Monday.

“This is an industry that’s already here, trying to accelerate, versus trying to start something from scratch,” Harris said Monday. “Solar should be one of your first considerations” to build a greener economy.

Habitat Work, Interrupted

Meanwhile, in an island chain that’s been dubbed the invasive species capital of the world, physical distancing has kept stewards from their usual work restoring West Hawaii island fish ponds. Researchers haven’t been able to do their usual underwater scuba surveys of marine environments because they can’t crowd together in boats.

Volunteers for the Paepae O He'eia non-profit organization collect invasive limu seaweed from inside He'eia fishpond walls on Saturday, March 23, 2019. The restoration of the He'eia fishpond for the past 15 years would not have been possible without the help of countless volunteers who turn out once a month on community workdays. (CivilBeat photo Ronen Zilberman)
Volunteers remove invasive seaweed from He’eia fishpond in 2019. Management of such fishponds in Hawaii has been interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat

“Our staff are anxious and eager to get back in the field,” said Kim Hum, The Nature Conservancy’s marine program director. The more time that lapses, the more difficult it becomes to track and compare data, she said.

“As this stretches on, we’ll see more impacts.”

Still, despite all the immediate challenges and funding uncertainties, local advocates say they’re cautiously optimistic that Hawaii can emerge from COVID-19 in a better position to protect the environment.

“There’s going to be a newfound sense of purpose,” said Jeff Mikulina, executive director of the clean-energy nonprofit Blue Planet. “But it’s going to take leadership and a commitment to not just return to business as usual.”

Read the conservation corps proposal here:

We’re here to help Hawaii vote.

Our staff has spent months preparing for this election season. Now it’s your turn to vote on the leaders who will impact our community for years to come.

If you’ve relied on our daily analysis and reporting, Candidate Q&As, free events and online resources, please consider making a donation to your local nonprofit newsroom.

Every contribution, however big or small, powers our journalism.

About the Author