Youths In Action at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

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“What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something.”

Story by Karyn Boenker – The history of industry, volcanic activity, and ‘aloha’ have led to a bright future for the land of Kahuku and the inspiring park rangers who work within it.

In light of recent tragedies involving youths, we should take the time to recognize some of those who have chosen paths towards a brighter future. The Hawai’ian islands are home to some of the lowest violent crimes rates in the country. A cultural focus on love, family, and nature in Hawai’i creates high expectations for young adults.


Julie Espaniola and Radhika Dockstander are two young Park Ranger Interns that describe how local national parks led their families towards a better life and away from trouble.

Throughout Kahuku park on the big island of Hawai’i, overgrown gates, grasslands, and fields are reminders of ranching practices that once ruled the land.

Today, Kahuku belongs to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park and is in the process of active restoration and public use. Karyn Boenker spoke with park rangers about the history of ranching, ancient forests, and the lives that lead them to Kahuku.Kahuku park is a special place, “We’ve got the foundation for this forest to come back, it’s just been waiting,” U.S. National Park Service Ranger Rita Pregana reflected during her interview.

She pointed to the Ohi’a trees as an example of the forest’s resilience, noting that visitors should be keen to notice the life that gathers in their shade and around their soil. Even among the lava fields.

Pregana reflected on her work as a ranger, “Once you develop that relationship to your place on what, some would consider, a real primal level… you’ll see things that are simple, but that you can’t place an order for, money can’t buy.”

The ultimate goal of the US National Parks is to protect resources through a balance ofpreservation and public use. Protecting the open space is important, but leaving some of it preserved for visitors provides an experience with nature in its most raw form.

Smart Ranching Practices Made Kahuku Park Possible

“If not for the ranch, we wouldn’t have such a large piece of land left in Hawai’i,” Pregana told Ms. Boenker.

Most ranching spaces in Hawai’i have cleared trees completely from the land and are used for ranching indefinitely or become defunct. Theland management choices made in Kahuku were unique, sparing some native and mature trees that now provide seeds for the forest to recover.

According to the land manager at the time, Harold Fredrick Rice, Jr., the goal of preserving healthy native trees was not conservation related, it was practical. More trees meant more fog, which led to healthier grass and more food for fewer cows.

In 2000, during an interview with the Hawai’i Cattlemen’s Council, Rice commented that many ranchers see cattle as their product, when they should really be focused on the grass. He claimed that such a focus enhanced the environment while increasing profits.

“Less cattle, less men, less equipment, everything else for the same pounds of beef,” Rice summarized for the Hawai’i Cattlemen’s Council.The choice was a unique one for the time, during the 60s and 70s when popular forestry methods supported clearcutting pastures. Throughout the Hawaiian islands, around 50% of land usehas been for cattle pastures, so related decisions have had a major impact. Kahuku park rangers reflected on some of the changes they have witnessed in the land.Two Intern Park Rangers at Kahuku told Ms.Boenker that the land connects them to an ancient past, while guiding them into their future.

Julia Espaniola is a high school student who was inspired by her brother to join the National Park Service. She attributes his decision to get involved with the parks, while also in high school, as a turning point in his life. Today, he works for The Nature Conservancy, a widely respected organization that concentrates on resource conservation, protection, and rehabilitation.

Working with the Park Service is “not just a job, it’s something that helps us see who we are and what we really want in life,” Espaniola told Ms. Boenker.

Radhika Dockstader is a psychology student at the University of Hawai’i who grew up on the edge of Kahuku. As a child she explored Kahuku’s forested pit crater, available for public viewing today, without really understanding it. The education she has received as a park employee has revealed a new way of seeing the space.

“I can go back through and imagine this huge tree canopy and what it would have been like. It’s incredible,” Dockstader explained.Both interns expressed sentiment that the park has helped them become adults. Like Espaniola’s brother, they began their work with the Park Service in high school. Since then, they have taken part in extensive training, scientific education, and outdoor experience with hiking and camping.The responsibility for park visitors has given them to opportunity to share the beauty and lessons of their home with the world. Both made special note to describe their zeal for helping people, especially when they get to connect with children and other locals.

“We are restoring and preserving what is left. If we don’t take care of what we have, it’s going to be gone,” Dockstader lamented.

History Matters

Over and over, the rangers directed my view to the lava fields and the Ohi’a trees bursting to life within them. Both Dockstader and Espaniola described their understanding of land change and so-called destruction as beautiful. They repeated their gratitude for the unique ranching choices that allowed Kahuku to begin a journey towards rebirth under the management of the National Park Service.

“If you do it right, nature will display itself in front of you,” Pregana concluded about her experiences with land preservation and the way she has come to love her work.

This story was meant to be about ranching and human impacts on forests, with Kahuku as an example of good choices changing history. During interviews with rangers a different story emerged; one where the forest had changed the people who had connected with it.

In 2003, the land of Kahuku was sold for the last time and will be preserved forever.

Karyn Boenker, MS, is a freelance journalist and humanitarian. She is currently a Fellow with the non-profit organization, Kopernik, where she works to bring solar lanterns to students in Indonesia. She writes about human interest stories around the world and enjoys communicating scientific topics with a touch of humor.