Nature Conservancy Honors Katie Cassel
Kaua‘i Weed Warrior Wins 2011 Kāko‘o ‘Āina Award
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Kaua'i weed warrior Katie Cassel.
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Katie Cassel with Conservancy staff.
Kauai weed warrior Katie Cassel received The Nature Conservancy’s Kāko‘o ‘Āina Award this past weekend at a community celebration on the Garden Isle. The award honors individuals who have provided significant and long-standing support for conservation. Kāko‘o ‘Āina means, literally, “one who supports the land.”
“Traditional conservation is boots-and-shovel work, and Katie Cassel is the personification of that ethic,” said Suzanne Case, the Conservancy’s Hawai‘i executive director. “Few people have dedicated themselves so thoroughly to preserving our islands’ natural diversity. She is a true community treasure.”
Casell’s organization, the Koke‘e Resource Conservation Program, is a volunteer outfit that fights invasive weeds. Since the group’s formation in 1998, they have removed 9.4 million weeds in the Koke‘e and Alaka‘i regions of Kaua‘i.
Primarily they have targeted weeds like strawberry guava, kāhili ginger and Australian tree fern, but also many others, including butterfly bush, Chinese privet, dogtail buddleia, palm grass, New Zealand tea and cup of gold.
“Almost single-handedly, Katie Cassel has prevented kāhili ginger from spreading into the heart of the Alaka‘i wilderness. That’s the core of the island’s watershed and a wonderland of native flora and fauna,” said Trae Menard, the Conservancy’s Kaua’i Program director and statewide director of Forest Conservation. “She has amazing dedication. She is simply relentless.”
Cassel was born and raised on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania and graduated from Gettysburg College. She came to Kaua‘i in 1992 to volunteer after Hurricane Iniki--and never left.
She first volunteered at Kāhili Mountain Park and then the National Tropical Botanical Garden. Later, she worked for four years at the Hui o Laka/Koke‘e Natural History Museum as volunteer coordinator and program assistant.
She founded the Koke‘e Resource Conservation Program in 1998 with grant funding, and has been working since then to control invasive weeds in the Koke‘e and Alaka‘i regions.
More than 25,000 volunteers—including repeat volunteers—have participated in her program. Almost 40 percent of those volunteers are from out of state: people who come to Kaua‘i and want to give back to the island.
“They not only return home with a valuable work experience, they also receive an education in why invasive weeds are so damaging to our native flora and fauna,” said Menard.
All total, Cassel’s group has cleared weeds from 9,000 acres (including repeat acres) in the Koke‘e and Alaka‘i regions. The group has averaged removal of three-quarters of a million weeds annually for the past 13 years.
Dr. Sam ‘Ohu Gon, the Conservancy’s senior scientist and cultural advisor, presented Cassel with a kāko‘o, or staff carved from ‘ōhi‘a wood. “In Hawaiian, one who provides unfailing support is called kāko‘o, which is derived from the word, ko‘o—a brace or supporting structure that denotes strength,” he said.
The Conservancy’s Kāko‘o ‘Āina or “Supporter of the Land” award, was established in 2006. Previous winners include Jan TenBruggencate, a 30-year science and environmental reporter with the Honolulu Advertiser; wildlife biologist and photographer Jack Jeffry; Maui biologist Art Medeiros; the east O‘ahu community group Mālama Maunalua; and Moloka’i cultural and environmental educator Penny Martin.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.