Molly O’Grady + Kaʻena Point State Park

Contributed by Paul Di Salvo

Editor’s Note: Please enjoy the following article about Molly O’Grady. This article is best enjoyed after reading our interview with Mike Ferguson, as both Molly and Mike have worked together on many public land issues together and provide an excellent example of the shared learning between different generations.

Molly O’Grady is an alumna of the Public Land Foundations’ Student Congress on Public Policy and Land Management. She currently works as a Kupu/Americorps Assistant for the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project (MFBRP) on Maui, Hawaii, which focuses on conserving Maui’s endemic, endangered, and threatened bird species through conservation management and restoration, but also emphasizes teaching and working collaboratively with the community to inspire them to be stewards for their ecosystem. Molly is also the Past President of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation’s (WWF) Conservation Leadership Corps (CLC) Program and a Committee Member of the national Confluence of Young Conservation Leaders (CYCL).  She grew up in the city of Chicago and graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in May 2015 with a BS in Wildlife Ecology: Research and Management.

I got a chance to speak with Molly about her wealth of experiences. Molly has provided this perspective based on her own experiences and does not personally speak for any of the cultures or individuals that are discussed below.

Paul: What was your first visit to Ka’ena Point State Park like?

Molly: It sounds really cheesy, but I would say magical! I had only been on Oahu (Hawaii) for a month at the time I visited Ka’ena Point State Park and it was the first place I had visited besides the beach or one of my field sites. There are two different routes to get there, but the first time I went I took the Mokuleia route which has a dirt road trail but also a trail that allows you to walk along the coast and see the different tide pools and creatures in them. After about an hour of hiking, you get towards the island’s point, which is fenced in, also known as Kaena Point Natural Area Reserve. Up until the 1980’s, you could drive right up to the point and it resulted in years of uncontrolled off-road vehicle use, which was eroding the sand dune ecosystem. The fence also assists with keeping out non-native predators known to kill native nesting birds such as mongoose, feral cats, and rats.  This Natural Area Reserve is one of the remaining habitats for native seabird nesting, such as albatross, wedge-tailed shearwaters, white-tailed tropics, and frigates. I was enthralled to see the albatross singing and performing mating dances while the shearwaters were diving overhead. It is amazing to think that 25 years ago, these behaviors were few, but due to conservation efforts we are able to see the birds come back and live in this area today. At the furthest tip of the point, there is white sun-bleached coral contrasting on the black volcanic rocks where you often find resting monk seals, one of the two native, endangered Hawaiian mammals. Our group watched the sunset, which is absolutely breath-taking as this reserve is at the western most tip of Oahu, and then we hiked back in the dark.  Overall, it is important to see that these conservation efforts are working and that these lands are still accessible to people, considering that the public is paying to keep these areas well-protected and that this place is also culturally and traditionally important to the Hawaiian people. It gives us (the public) a feeling of being more invested in being an environmental steward when we can actually see what our efforts have accomplished.  Areas like this allow us to understand why it is important to conserve particular ecosystems and species. From what I have experienced, the state parks on Oahu are very accessible. When I grew up in Chicago, we didn’t have many parks surrounding us that were easy to get to. For me, this was and is an incredible opportunity to be able to get to a park easily and see amazing species, even whales during the winter season!

Ka’ena Point State Park (Molly O’Grady)

 You also mentioned that you enjoy Waimea Valley on Oahu and Alakai Swamp on Kauai, both of which are also state parks. What characteristics of Hawaii’s state-owned public lands do you find special?

The cultural connection on these state-owned areas is strong, just like at Ka’ena Point State Park. Each park has a cultural connection and cultural story. Waimea Valley (The Valley of the Priests) was designated to be given to the Kahuna Nui (Highpriests), people that are very skilled in their craft. When you go there, you can just feel that it is an important place for Hawaiian people. There are still some traditional practices going on there today, such as imu, which is, in a very basic description, the traditional way that Hawaiians cook in the ground. The history of Waimea Valley is that it was inhabited and in use by Native Hawaiians, but then during difficult times the people were forced to give away the land (by foreign influences). However, recently, within the last 10 years or so, the land returned to the hands of a Native Hawaiian governing entity. Now it is, in a sense, back in the hands of Hawaiian people and is still considered a sacred place where people can come and learn about culture and conservation. One of the things I love about this piece of state-owned lands is the accessibility. So many people come through this area. Other than that I once worked in this area for the Hawaii VINE project. One of the most interesting aspects to me is that it used to be a traditional, sustainable Hawaiian conservation system called ahupua’a (a division of land stretching from the mountains to the sea). Hawaiians were fantastic at sustainable conservation. This system had different layers (elevations) set up from the mountains all the way to sea to harvest different resources that they needed. For instance, in the uka (uplands) is where they would harvest trees for wa’a (canoes) and where they would catch bird feathers for their traditional regalia. The kula (middle grounds) were used for many of their agricultural practices, like growing kalo (taro) or ‘uala (sweet potato). Near the sea (kai) was used for fishing and voyaging.

At Alakai Swamp, there is a pretty long hike, but it is still accessible to the public, where they can go to view birds that they may never see anywhere else in the world as most of Hawaii’s native species are endemic to Hawaii. The native forest at Alakai Swamp is very important because native plants do not use as much water as non-native plants and a lot of the watersheds have a limited quantity of water which is replenished by these native forests. I think this place allows the public to see firsthand why it is important to protect the birds and the forests, thus the culture of Hawaiian people. I love how Hawaiian state lands incorporate the culture, bring younger people into the system, are accessible, show where the public investment is going, and teach about conservation.

Example of an Ahupua’a management regime

When I talk to people passionate about public lands, they often think immediately about federally-owned lands. Why do you think this is and what can we do to promote our state-managed public lands?

I think a lot of people generally define public lands as federal ownership because when you look at the history of public lands, a lot of those areas were federally-managed and later entrusted to states. At the state-level, it seems easier for the state to sell off public lands and have different priorities for those lands, since there is generally less oversight than federally-owned lands. When people think about public lands, they generally think about the western United States, because of the way it is advertised and the history of wanting to go to the wilderness to be alone and discover yourself through a vast, endless place. For many of the people from where I grew up,there isn’t as much of a desire to go to the outdoors by yourself, but rather with someone. There is this Westernized-idea of being alone in nature, but then there are plethoras of other cultures that do not think of being in the outdoors as a solitary thing, but rather as a family activity. Maybe the reason a lot of people think of public lands as being only federally-owned is because that is what we are taught in school and through media outlets. State-managed public lands could be a great way to accessibility. Many of the National Parks require permits, which are great because they promote conservation, but can be off-putting to getting people from an urban background to plan a trip to travel to these parks and spend money that they don’t have. State parks are closer and more convenient. I think the best way to change the public land mentality is to work with schools to educate students about what public lands are, what values they have to different groups, and encourage students to visit them.

I agree. While they are promoting the “Every Fourth Grader in a Park” program, there really isn’t the education in schools about public lands and conservation issues. Education and outreach are really important.  You have been quite involved with the Public Land Foundation (PLF)’s Student Congress program, which is an educational experience for college students. The Student Congress focuses on the PLF’s mission of keeping public  lands in public hands. What role have you played in promoting that mission?

I attended PLF’s second Student Congress which was focused on the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964. As an alumna, I came back for the third Student Congress in 2016, which was focused on the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976. Before my participation in PLF’s Student Congress, I was working on a project with the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation (WWF), which is made up of hunters, anglers, and other sportswomen and men who are interested in conserving the outdoors for different public uses and future generations. Most individuals involved with the WWF are 30 years old and up, with the majority being white males late in their careers or retired. The group noticed that they were not recruiting young people and others who are not hunters that also enjoy the outdoors. These older individuals who have worked in conservation their whole lives want to be able to pass on their ideas and traditions to younger people, but they also want people to understand the direction that conservation programs are going, so as they filter out of the workforce they can make sure that it is set up for young people to come in and take over. To do this, WWF decided to create the Wisconsin Conservation Leadership Corps (CLC) program that focused on teaching conservation leadership to young people who are attending school in Wisconsin. These skills included defending positions on conservation topics that they are passionate about through leadership development skills such as public speaking and writing policy resolutions on how to solve a particular problem. The resolutions are actually presented to the WWF and voted on. I was selected to be a student in the first year of the CLC program and was brought back as Coordinator the second year. Since then I have served as President and Past President of the CLC Executive Committee. This program allows you to work with various natural resource professionals in person and build skills that you wouldn’t necessarily get in the classroom. One I completed this program, I felt that I gained experience working on public land policy and felt confident to apply for the PLF’s Student Congress, which has a similar process with working on conservation issues and being mentored by retirees from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). PLF wanted to make sure they were educating the next generation of land managers and policy makers on the issues that they worked on during their career so that the students are ready to take over when they get into the workforce. One of the biggest things I got out of the Student Congress was hearing a keynote speech by Walter Echo-Hawk, a Native American speaker, author and attorney. During his presentation, Mr. Echo-Hawk discussed the idea of a National Conservation (land) Ethic, which is something that many refer to when they think of Aldo Leopold. Mr. Echo-Hawk took it a step further and talked about a National Land and Sea Ethic and how different indigenous cultures have viewed the environment this way since their beginning. Under the westernized view, we manage and control the land, whereas in indigenous cultures they believe that you are a part of the land and there is more of a moral compass to take care of the land than there is in Westernized culture. The biggest thing that Mr. Echo-Hawk argues is that this needs to not just be a land ethic, but a land and sea ethic because each of us comes into contact with water resources in one way or another in our connected ecosystems and we have a huge disconnect between the way we manage land and manage water as if it is a  separate entity, as if it is not connected to the land.  There are also cultures, like that of the Hawaiian people, who rely on and are heavily connected to the sea and other water resources just as much as they do the land; it’s a cycle of connection.  My takeaway from his talk was that a National Land and Sea Ethic isn’t something that you can develop overnight, but rather something that the Student Congress will be working on for years and needs to be applied elsewhere.  We also need to take the time to sit down with these indigenous cultures and learn from their practices and the way that they have viewed and worked with the land sustainably for many generations before Europeans arrived.   Additionally, the Student Congress hopes that there will be a larger gathering to bring together a bunch of different student leaders to be one big and powerful voice on public land management. I worked alongside WWF’s leadership as well as Conservation Federation of Missouri, Minnesota CLC, and Texas Brigades to utilize that Student Congress’ mission of gathering these different youth conservation groups across the country that all have the same mission but are working on isolated projects and focusing that in to a national approach. We put together a committee to form a National Confluence for Young Conservation Leaders (CYCL) to share ideas and be more powerful as one unified voice. I think it is inspiring for young people to see leaders of these organizations who have been fighting for public lands and conservation issues for many years, such as Mike Ferguson, have faith and confidence in the younger generation. I think that gives us the kick we need to continue working and make a difference. I think it gives the older generations hope that there are still people passionate in public lands. Once again, it is a cycle, we are all connected.

It is truly a cycle, where youth bring up new conservation issues and taking the charge on issues that some of the older generations worked on their entire career. But at the same time, you have those retirees or senior career professionals mentoring and giving advice and confidence to the younger generations. It reinvigorates those who have may become disillusioned with public land conservation over the course of their careers. Playing into this idea, what do you see as the future for public lands management?

One of the things I am observing more regularly is the discussion of different stakeholders and how diverse populations enjoy and discuss their experience in the outdoors; they have more of a voice.. AfroOutdoors ( is a program that works to bring and encourage African Americans to experience and enjoy the outdoors, while breaking the stereotype that African Americans don’t explore our public lands. I think it is important to see how other demographics and cultures utilize and value public lands as well as their history with public lands. I feel that Hawaiian people are all about their ‘ohana (family). Most Hawaiians that participate in hunting or conservation activities go with their friends or family rather than going by themselves. We all have traditions, but it is important to understand different cultures, their histories, and their reliance (subsistence) on these lands so that we can properly understand why and how public lands are important to different people in the nation. At PLF’s Student Congress, we discussed how to make sure that we can get people from different backgrounds to public lands while at the same time protecting these lands from too many visitors and getting degraded. We discussed making it a higher entry fee, but then that excludes low income people from coming to see public lands. I think we also need to tell the true history of our public lands and the fact that many of them were originally ceded Native American territory. Some people that we consider conservation heroes are not heroes to the people that are originally from this landscape. For some of my African American friends they were historically displaced from the outdoors due to slavery so their connotation with public lands or the outdoors is very different from how white people may view these lands.  There is a lot of intergenerational trauma there that we have yet to recognize as a nation.  Once we can recognize that and put our privileges aside, the healing process for many of these cultures can take another step forward. We worked on the Student Congress to tell the true history of these places and the many families that were forced out of their homelands to create national parks. Honoring and respecting the truth of that history is something I hope will become more prominent. As part of that land and sea ethic, we need to incorporate the Traditional/Indigenous Ecological Knowledge of people that were part of these landscapes for so long, especially since they have a longer, deep seeded understanding of these landscapes.

Molly_Divingfor_He'e (Octopus)
Molly (left) with friends Munsta Souza (middle) and Nigel Golden (right) holding an octopus harvested for subsistence purposes (courtesy of Molly O’Grady)

The one thing I remember about my Hawaiian geology is the two types of lava. So which would you pick: Aa or pahoehoe?

That’s a really good question. Last month (November) I had went for my birthday to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. I don’t know if I would pick one over the other. I guess I am naturally more like Aa because I am trying to do a million things at once; fast-paced like the city that I grew up in (Chicago).  I’m also very fiery and passionate, in good ways and not so good ways, sometimes too passionate, a bit rigged, even explosive. However, being in Hawaii and living the island life has taught me to be more pahoehoe, or slow moving, to utilize aa when it’s necessary. The thing about working and living with Native people is that they have taught me to be more like pahoehoe and relaxed. There are things that you can learn from sitting back and listening and learning to be content with not being on a time clock, but rather going with the flow of the ecosystem. We were taught in our society to have instant gratification as soon as we have a question (raise your hand if you have a question, but in native cultures you can learn just as much or more by just not talking and listening (or what Hawaiian people call “talking story”). I am extremely appreciative for what Native people have and continue to teach and share with me.  I think it is also a good way to look at conservation. The older generations teach you to utilize your ability to work fast on things, but also to slow down and look and listen to who and what is around you, what knowledge and experience is already available.  That’s another lesson that I have learned from Native people is to respect your elders, they have a lot to share with you if you are willing to take the time to listen and learn.

Photos provided by Molly O’Grady

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