“Ed was a pioneer – and still is. He shows us what it takes to protect our special places, and how to do it with a lot of heart.”
Suzanne Case, Hawai'i Executive Director, The Nature Conservancy
By Naomi Sodetani
When Ed Misaki answered a tiny classified ad to manage The Nature Conservancy’s first Hawai‘i preserve on Moloka‘i in 1982, and was hired, he knew very little about native Hawaiian ecosystems and what the job of protecting them entailed.
“I was happy I got the job, but still not sure what the job was,” he chuckles. “How do you manage a ‘preserve,’ anyway?”
Today, as director of the Conservancy’s Moloka‘i programs, Misaki and his mostly island-born staff manage three preserves totaling 9,000 acres. These preserves – Kamakou, Pelekunu and Mo‘omomi – represent the island’s rich diversity of native forest, coastal and stream ecosystems.
“Under Ed’s leadership, the Moloka‘i program has become one of the jewels of our work,” said Suzanne Case, the Conservancy’s Hawai‘i executive director. “Ed was a pioneer – and still is. He shows us what it takes to protect our special places, and how to do it – with a lot of heart.”
This year marks Misaki’s 34th anniversary with the Conservancy. Looking back, longtime friends and colleagues recalled how the program began as a staff of one – Misaki working out of an old tool shed on a shoestring budget, and making do with a donated Ford truck and a borrowed backpack.
Alan Holt, a former deputy director for the Hawai'i program, interviewed Misaki for the position. “Ed’s enthusiasm and passion for Moloka‘i really came through,” Holt says. “He really cared about the place.” Misaki also proved to be “a sponge for knowledge,” eager to learn about the natural treasures under his care.
When Misaki started the job, he had a biology degree but admits he was “clueless” about the threats facing native plants and ecosystems. Like other local youth born and raised on Moloka‘i, he had grown up outdoors. “All my life, I’ve hunted, fished,” Misaki says. “I thought pigs and goats were good.”
But, exploring Kamakou, he soon saw that their rooting and grazing habits were stripping away the island’s native forests and causing erosion that denuded mountain tops and muddied offshore reefs.
Learning that Molokai’s native resources were at risk ignited Misaki with a powerful sense of purpose: “The light bulb went on, like, ‘Man, my island is endangered; I gotta do something about it!’”
Safeguarding Natural Treasures
In the years since, Misaki has applied this fierce resolve to safeguarding Molokai’s natural environment. “We’ve reduced damage from feral animals on our preserves to almost zero, discovered previously unknown species and helped stop wildfires,” he says.
In a massive mid-80s endeavor, staff worked with a crew of youth workers from Alu Like, an organization committed to empowering Native Hawaiians, and countless volunteers to build a boardwalk through Kamakou. The boardwalk lightens human impact during guided hikes that allow visitors to safely explore the preserve and one of its greatest treasures, Pē‘pē‘ōpae Bog, one of Hawaii’s oldest bogs.
In recent years, swelling numbers of native wedge-tailed shearwaters signal the establishment of a new seabird colony at Mo‘omomi – the first on Moloka‘i in many decades.
Misaki constantly strives to strengthen conservation awareness on Moloka‘i and to rally support for many large-scale conservation projects that extend protection of the island’s natural resources beyond preserve boundaries.
In 1999, Moloka‘i won designation as an “enterprise community” to receive federal funds supporting sustainable economic growth. Misaki spearheaded discussions that led to broad agreement that watershed protection was the island’s top environmental priority.
Through his efforts, the Conservancy joined with other public and private landowners to form the East Moloka‘i Watershed Partnership, which under Ed’s leadership is managing another 11,000 acres on the island's eroding south slope. The partnership’s main focus is to stop the upward movement of wild goats, by fencing off high-elevation watershed areas and controlling their intrusion into the upper forests. Reducing erosion upland also benefits Molokai’s marine resources downstream, by reducing harmful runoff that smothers coral reefs.
“I’d like to see certain things happen in my time. Seeing those slopes green up – that would be the best," Misaki muses.
"The people of Moloka‘i value the native forest a whole lot more than when I first started," he says. "Hunting will always be a high value on Moloka'i, but our community is beginning to place just as high of a value on the work we do to reduce feral animals in our native forest and landscapes."
Earth Day, Every Day
Since 1995, the Moloka'i program has sponsored the island's hugely popular Earth Day Celebration, a fun, family-oriented event that annually attracts more than 1,000 of Molokai’s 7,000 residents.
“It introduces people to conservation,” Misaki says. “First year, someone comes just to hang out, enjoy the food and music. Next year, maybe they go inside, check out the (educational) booths, and learn about restoring fishponds or about why we’re building fences to keep the goats out.
“Five, six years down the line, who knows? They may volunteer for one of those projects.” Misaki loves watching the whole process unfold. “It’s really neat to see people, just like me, when the light bulb goes on, ‘Wow!'"