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White and Maui staff
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White at TNC staff retreat
"He has been an icon of conservation for many years, He has brought a lot of people to the table who would not have been involved."
Trae Menard The Conservancy’s Hawai'i Director of Forest Conservation
By Jan TenBruggencate
Twenty-five years ago, Mark White downshifted.
From a high-tech position maintaining NASA’s Lunar Ranging Observatory (LURE) atop Haleakalā, he stepped into the world of mud, bugs, weeds and rare plants.
His college degree was in English, and he had technical training from the Goddard Space Flight Center at NASA. He had minimal conservation credentials, having worked briefly for Florida Defenders of the Environment.
“I was always interested in living on a tropical island, and growing up in Florida I was inspired by the natural environment,” he said.
The job with the LURE Observatory got him to the island, but then, “one day, I saw an ad in the paper to work for The Nature Conservancy.”
He got the Conservancy job as its Maui project director, and then shifted back into high gear, becoming a force for collaborative protection of the environment in the Hawaiian Islands and across the Pacific.
“He has been an icon of conservation for many years,” said Trae Menard, the Conservancy’s Hawai'i director of forest conservation. “He has brought a lot of people to the table that would not have been involved. It’s his personality. He can push, but it doesn’t seem like he’s pushing. You can disagree with him, but it never becomes disagreeable.”
“He’s just a natural at forging relationships. He’s been an amazing asset to our work in Hawai`i,” added Sam ʻOhu Gon, the Hawaiʻi Conservancy’s senior scientist and cultural advisor.
White helped build the relationships that formed the first Hawaiian watershed alliance. The concept involved looking at upland forested watersheds as a broad expanse of conservation land, and not allowing property lines to interfere with their protection.
The first one was a real challenge. The East Maui Watershed Partnership involved bringing together a diverse group of landowners and interests. For the conservation interests—the National Park, the State and The Nature Conservancy—the advantages of partnership were obvious: together they could protect the rare plants and endangered forest birds that find refuge in the upper elevations of the mountain.
But what enticed the private landowners—the East Maui Irrigation, Co., Haleakala Ranch and Hana Ranch—was protecting the water supply. The East Maui watershed is a 100,000-acre core forest area that supplies more than 60 billion gallons of water annually to the people of Maui.
“It was a brilliant idea,” said Gon. “Without fail, everyone recognized that the watershed bridged economic and environmental interests. Mark was just such a good worker of those connections.”
White then shifted his attention to West Maui and a different group of partners, including Kamehameha Schools, Amfac/JMB, Maui Land & Pine and the Maui Department of Water Supply. Ultimately, he has been instrumental in the formation of watershed partnerships across the state, including the umbrella organization that helps build their conservation capacity—the Hawai`i Association of Watershed Partnerships.
“When the first watershed partnership was formed in 1991, it was just an idea. Nobody knew if it would work,” said White. “After seeing the success of the two Maui partnerships, I knew it had the potential to be a statewide model. However, I never thought we would be able to build 11 partnerships and protect more than 2 million acres of conservation lands so quickly.”
In 1997, White helped establish the Maui Invasive Species Committee, an on-the-ground SWAT team that also became a model for other islands. In 2007 he helped start the Maui Conservation Alliance, which brings together preservation professionals from across the island to find cooperative solutions to Maui’s most urgent conservation problems.
Beyond the Hawaiian Islands, White has worked on conservation issues in Samoa, Indonesia, the Philippines, the Ecuador mainland and the Galapagos. He helped form the Pacific Invasives Learning Network, which brings together a wide range of agencies and governments from across the Pacific region.
White currently heads the Conservancy’s Maui Nui Program, which involves oversight of seven preserves on Maui, Molokaʻi and Lānaʻi, as well as active participation in Maui’s watershed partnerships.
“He’s done major things that have influenced Hawaiʻi conservation. He’s got really good judgment and experience,” said Suzanne Case, executive director of the Conservancy’s Hawaiʻi Program.
White, she said, has grown with the Conservancy. “When he started, we had an annual budget of $700,000. Now it’s $11 million.”
Growth is a feature of White’s life. When he recognized early in his Conservancy career that he lacked the public speaking skills that his work required, he joined Toastmasters and overcame his fear of getting up in front of a crowd.
An early love of board surfing has grown, too, to include both kite surfing and stand-up surfing.
What about the mud, bugs, weeds and rare plants? White says he manages to get out of the office and into Maui’s native forests about four times a month.
Menard, an accomplished waterman who once worked for White and is now his boss, said he appreciates White’s guidance in both conservation and the aquatic endeavors.
“I’ve always wanted to pattern my career after his,” he said.