Ulalia Woodside at Kakoo Oiwi.

Photo: Michelle Mishina

The Nature Conservancy

Harnessing the collective potential of Hawaii’s conservation community one project at a time.

Caring for our communities requires everyone to pitch in and give back. It’s what we do. And it takes all of us. 

In these profiles, we zoom in on neighbors making a difference every day. We meet a family that’s been giving back for generations because it’s in their DNA and a man who created a legacy for generations to come. We see rock bottom and celebrate second chances, and we discover the dedication that propels people to preserve and protect our precious aina.

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Ulalia Woodside is hanging art in her small office in The Nature Conservancy’s Chinatown headquarters. The executive director of the Hawaii chapter, Woodside has been on the job for almost three years, listening, learning, understanding.  But don’t mistake that for complacency. Her urgency and intensity are unmistakable.

“This Kauai Oo bird went extinct on our watch,” she says, straightening the faded lithograph she’d just hung between her office windows. “It happened in our lifetime, on our islands, a casualty of our life-way.” She’s not angry. But she’s focused. “This is the way we live, what we do,” she says. “The solution is in habitat — where, what they need, how to give them a fighting chance.”

Without catching a breath, she shares the story of a recent hike up Manoa Cliff, where she came upon a rare plant, one she’d not seen before. The awe of it resonates in her words, her excitement. She immediately connects the plants to the birds, the need for distribution —pollination —and the inevitable impact of humans’ way-of-life on nature’s most critical cycles. She talks about the complexity of man and nature, how to intervene and then release back into nature, where it belongs. “We have to help and hold on to things until another solution comes along,” she says. Gazing at the lithograph and reflecting on the work being done along the Manoa Cliff trail, she says, “People destroy, but then they restore, all within those few acres.”

The Nature Conservancy stands as the world’s leading conservation organization, dependent on scientists and research and in-the-field conservation that relies on partnerships and dedication to the common mission. The Hawaii chapter opened its doors in 1980, focusing first on native birds and then the lands and ecosystems that sustain them. The need is undisputed. Of the 140 species of native birds once sustained in the Hawaiian Islands, half are extinct and another 30 are imperiled. The Hawaii chapter established its first preserve in 1982 on Molokai, giving residents a glimpse of what was possible, what conservation could accomplish. Today, the conservancy and its partners across the Islands protect and preserve over 2.2 million acres of natural habitat lands. “What becomes very clear,” Woodside says, “is that we can protect and preserve these lands, but we must work in collaboration and partnership with our neighbors and other stewards.” 

Woodside believes the work in Hawaii is critical — not just here at home, but around the world. “The Islands are the canary in the coal mine,” she says, the front line of environmental challenges faced by communities around the globe. “Island-minded people are global people. Small island people are really big ocean people.” 

The interdependence rooted in these islands — the connections between the local culture, scarcity and abundance, drought and floods — can help us chart new paths toward the successful comingling of people and the species with whom we share these natural resources. “We are problem solvers and survivors in Hawaii,” she says. “It’s in our DNA.” 

Woodside stands firm that the conservancy can’t shy away from the big challenges, the ones that seem overwhelming, impossible to solve. “We look for that place where nature thrives and people can thrive,” she says. “When the sea lives, we live. When the forest lives, we live.” 

The Hawaii chapter reaches all of the Hawaiian Islands and the Palmyra Atoll with a 70-person staff that includes senior scientists and cultural advisers, working alongside project managers and outreach staff. They see themselves as the front lines, the connectors between what’s happening in the state’s fragile ecosystems and what is possible. Woodside believes the power of these islands is their most potent weapon. “Our relationship with the creatures, the land and the ocean makes us who we are,” she says. “A surfer in Hawaii is different from a surfer in some other place. Hawaii makes people want to take care of this place.” 

Like all nonprofits, the Hawaii chapter depends on the generosity and commitment of its community to fund the projects and bring about the change and preservation they look to achieve. But Woodside doesn’t talk first about the money, the dollars and cents needed to make it happen. She talks about the people. “People do more than the budgets allow,” she says. “People talk to people and trust is built, relationships are built.” She looks to her years of hula for inspiration, the magic that happens when the dancers and choreography and costumes and the kumu hula come together, blending their stories and their art. “I believe in and trust in what’s possible among passionate people,” she says. “Philanthropy isn’t just about the money. It’s the collective potential of what’s possible.” 

That collective potential showed itself recently in the transformation of habitats along Oahu’s Windward coast. Woodside and the project’s partners from Castle Foundation and NOAA visited the site to examine the 9 acres that had been cleared of invasive mangroves. “We were standing in feet of muck and mud among roots that go on forever,” she says. “It’s ugly, this work in progress, with tractor tire marks, muck, stinky water.” And then the magic happens. “Ducks flew in, right over our heads, and settled in the just cleared water. Ducks hadn’t been there in decades, but there they were, back again.” 

Back in her office, Woodside points to the small aquarium bowl in the middle of her table. “Do you see them?” she asked. “Right there, swimming among the plants.” The bowl is home to a collection of opae ula, tiny shrimp that live in anchialine ponds — landlocked bodies of water with subterranean connections to the sea —  around Hawaii. Staff scientist and cultural adviser Sam Ohu Gon helped her set up the bowl, which holds a living, swimming, breathing example of why she does what she does every day. 

“It freaks me out a little bit that we won’t do well enough,” she says, watching the tiny shrimp. “It’s a heavy burden sometimes, but it’s our kuleana. We want to be worthy to walk the same paths as those who came before us.”