As a staff member of The Nature Conservancy, I am often asked what inspired me to work in conservation. For me, it began with a letter and a lesson in patience.
In 1977, when I was five years old, I watched the bombing of the island of Kahoʻolawe* on our little, fuzzy 12-inch television set. It upset me so much I wrote to President Carter, asking him to stop the bombing. I waited for weeks, checking the mailbox every day hoping for a response. Two months later I got a letter from President Carter saying he would look into the situation. My parents were shocked that I received any reply at all.
And then I waited for the bombing to stop. And waited. When I was 11, I decided I needed to become a lawyer to get things moving. After all, I reasoned, messages from lawyers must carry more weight than those from a five-year old. Finally, in 1990, 14 years after I sent my letter, the bombing of Kahoʻolawe finally ended. I’d like to think my letter to the President had something to do with it. Writing to him is my earliest memory of being inspired and moved to conserve something. The long wait was my lesson that conservation takes time. Five years later, in 1995, I enrolled in law school.
Protecting the 'Aina (land)
I now negotiate all the land transactions for The Nature Conservancy of Hawaiʻi. I work closely with our scientists to identify properties that have the best remaining native habitat. It is my job to try to see that those parcels are legally protected either by the Conservancy or one of our partners.
To us, legally protected means the important conservation values will be protected forever. In some cases the land is donated, but in others we purchase it either at fair market value or at a discount. Each transaction is done only with willing sellers, and each one takes a lot of letters—and patience.
Our land protection files are filled with projects that were identified as high-priority parcels before I was born. The recent expansion of our Waikamoi Preserve on Maui, for example, was a transaction our office worked on for over two decades.
The Importance of Giving Back
I was born and raised in Kailua, O'ahu, but my family roots are from Kohala on the Big Island. I descend from those who have focused on leadership and the importance of giving back to the Hawaiian community. My grandfather, Thomas Kaulukukui Sr., was a Trustee for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, and the first University of Hawaiʻi football player to earn All-American honors. My father, Thomas Kaulukukui, Jr., is a former State circuit court judge who now chairs the board of the Queen Liliʻuokalani Trust, which serves orphan and destitute Hawaiian children.
In addition to my duties at the Conservancy, I am raising six sons. Protecting the native Hawaiian plants and animals is important to me, not just as a conservationist, but because it is a way to protect and perpetuate my Hawaiian culture for my children. I now encourage my sons to write letters when the feel strongly about something, but to be patient, because important things can take time.
Why should any of us care about a tiny spider, an odd plant, or a bird we’ve never seen? Because each of these creatures is a single thread in the greater tapestry that makes up our culture. Eventually, as more threads disappear, the entire fabric will unravel. And, when they are gone, our culture and language will become extinct, too.
I am lucky to have a job that allows me to continue the work I started when I was five. Plus, if you ask my kids what I do, they will tell you that “Mommy saves the planet” – and that makes it all worthwhile. – Jody Kaulukukui
* Kahoʻolawe is the smallest of the main Hawaiian Islands. During World War II, it was used as a training ground and bombing range by the U.S. military. After decades of protests, the U.S. Navy ended live-fire training exercises on Kahoʻolawe in 1990.