"Hawaiian culture and Hawaiian ecology are inseparable in my viewpoint."
Sam 'Ohu Gon III
Senior Scientist and Cultural Advisor, The Nature Conservancy of Hawai'i
By Naomi Sodetani
This past month marked an epic milestone for Sam ‘Ohu Gon III, The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii’s senior scientist and cultural advisor: 25 years with the Conservancy, pursuing his lifelong passion to preserve Hawaii’s natural and cultural heritage.
It all began in 1986 at a conservation conference, when he was tapped on the shoulder by a Conservancy staff member, who asked: “So, how’d you like to be an ecologist for The Nature Conservancy?”
Gon, who had recently completed his doctoral studies in California, was intrigued: “I thought, ‘Sure, that would be nice: one to three years with an NGO, then I’ll be back at the University (of Hawai‘i) for my post-doc, get tenure, teach and do research.’”
The bearded scientist chuckles heartily, “And here I am, still here! A few years turned into a career in conservation with the Conservancy.”
“What can I say? We lucked out,” chimes in Suzanne Case, the Conservancy’s Hawai‘i executive director. For Case, having the state’s foremost cultural ecologist on staff has been a blessing. “Sam is immensely gifted and devoted to protecting the biological and cultural richness of this place that he loves,” she says. “His leadership, vision and deep community roots have been instrumental in many facets of our conservation work and in guiding this program to become what it is today.”
Summits to Coasts
“It’s been an amazing journey,” Gon admits, and one that has taken him to places few people ever see.
He recalls that one of his first projects was to compile a comprehensive biological inventory of the state’s natural area reserves—an unprecedented two-year undertaking that took him and fellow agency scientists into remote rainforests, cinder cone deserts, lava tubes, streams and anchialine pools to gather baseline data on their diverse natural communities.
“It was my chance to think about and classify all the known ecosystems of Hawai‘i from summit to coast,” he says of the benchmark effort, which provided the foundation for managing the state’s reserves.
“When people asked early on why I liked it here, I told them that, unlike other conservation organizations or agencies, whenever I did a project, I knew it wasn’t going to turn into a report that was stuck on a shelf and forgotten,” he says. “It was going to turn into something actually happening on the land.”
In addition to holding a master’s degree in zoology and a doctorate in animal behavior from the University of California-Davis, Gon has more than 30 years of experience in Hawaiian ecology and extensive knowledge of Hawaiian culture, history and language. A well-known cultural practitioner of traditional chant, hula and protocol, he underwent the traditional Hawaiian ‘uniki rites of passage under Kumu John Keolamaka‘āinana Lake, a master of religion and cultural protocol, to attain the status of kahuna kākalaleo.
In 2006, he was appointed by the governor to the State Board of Land and Natural Resources, and is now serving a second term. Says Case, “For the first time, a formally trained conservation biologist and traditionally trained Hawaiian cultural practitioner can bring the insights of both fields to bear on Hawaii’s land and natural resource issues.”
Since joining the Conservancy in 1986, Gon has served the organization in a number of different capacities, including its director of science. But it is his current position, as senior scientist and cultural advisor, that best reflects the instrumental role he has had in leading the Conservancy to integrate cultural values with its stewardship efforts. “Hawaiian culture and Hawaiian ecology are inseparable in my viewpoint,” he says. “You cannot talk about protection of Hawaiian ecological systems without knowing what the consequences are for Hawaiian culture. The main idea, the driving thing for me, is that protecting these species and ecosystems is protecting Hawaiian culture.”
Gon is one of the rare people able to align his professional career with his personal values. “What motivates me to get up and get out the door every morning is knowing that there’s so much left, so much beauty that is vitally important to what we have here living in Hawai‘i. More people than ever appreciate what’s at stake, they understand that both the negative actions of history and the positive actions that we take today have consequences. We must work hard and work together to save what’s left,” he says.
These days, Gon is increasingly called on to share his conservation expertise abroad. He has assisted in cooperative projects and workshops in the Galapagos Islands, the Philippines, Pohnpei, Palau, Jamaica, Okinawa and Rapanui (Easter Island). Recently, he was asked to serve on a multinational assessment of indigenous land strategies for the protection of the Amazon rainforest and sat with a team of project leaders working directly with native communities in Central and South America.
Gon welcomes the burgeoning opportunities: “The whole idea of being involved in a global organization and having your expertise utilized — not just at the local level but at whatever level is appropriate for you — that has been so rewarding for me.” Rewarding enough, Case hopes, to keep Gon happily on board for the next 25 years.