06 Aug IN THE FIELD | Blue Waters Exchange

By Christopher ‘a‘ālā Zauner

I grew up on the island of Kaua‘i, and upon graduating from Kapa‘a High in 2014, I enrolled in the Kupu Hawai‘i Youth Conservation Corps – Summer program as a team member. That summer greatly impacted my future decisions and set the tone for my desire and passion in a conservation-based career.


Following that summer, I applied for a yearlong internship on Kaua‘i with Kupu’s Conservation Leadership Development Program and was placed at Waipā Foundation in Hanalei. After the internship, Waipā brought me on staff full-time, and I stayed for two years. Currently, I am pursuing an agricultural certificate through an international program based out of Denmark, and I am planning to return to Waipā.

The Blue Waters Exchange program, which is available to former Kupu participants, is a way for Kupu and the Forest Service to engage and inspire young conservation leaders. Funded through the Forest Service, it engages local youth with their environment through conservation, just like the HYCC- Summer program. The vision was simple: Match up Kupu alumni with alumni of a similar program called Generation Green based out of Lake Tahoe for two weeks of interacting with each other and visiting various organizations.

During the first part of the exchange, which took place last summer in California, we worked with Forest Service projects and met some of the indigenous people in the area. For the second part of the exchange, the Generation Green alumni came to Hawai‘i.

Photos courtesy of the USDA Forest Service

The goal was to broaden both alumni groups’ perspective on ideas and methods in conservation. Personally, I had no real expectations. I was excited to meet new people, learn about California and Hawai‘i, and share about my home. But this exchange completely blew me away. I have met some of the smartest, most driven and inspirational people I’ve ever known. Every person in our cohort was so unique, invested, and diligent in their connection to the environment and their careers.

Hawai‘i is such a unique and wondrous place, and it was exciting and enlightening to have the California group here. I’m always learning new things about my home, but I find it’s almost more enriching just experiencing the environment first-hand. For example, you can read all you want about happy-faced spiders, but to actually go into the forest and find them in their natural habitat (which we got to do!) is all the more valuable to me.


The Californians had a great time — they learned about the sites we visited, but the learning didn’t stop there. We had deep conversations during our down time when us locals shared about Hawai‘i. From mo‘olelo to mea‘ai, we wanted to fill them in on everything. Of course, they were very receptive, eager, and open.

But through interacting with them, I realized that Hawai‘i’s problems cannot be solved by Hawai‘i alone, and that to be better stewards of this place, we need to be able to convey our message on a multicultural basis. This is the purpose of the exchange: The Gen Greeners got to experience Hawai‘i’s richness with real people of the place, and we got insight on the perspective of the visitor. This is a skill I valued from this exchange — talking openly with one another without bias or fear to seek out the best possible outcome.

Based on my experience in both places, I’d say without a doubt, tourism is the most pressing issue in Tahoe and Hawai‘i. Because along with tourism follows the disposable lifestyle; visitors tend to be more lax if they come with the mindset that they will never see these people again or never visit the place again. Who is this burden left on? The residents who are already struggling to rent a house. And what about culture? Is the native culture being swept under the rug while million-dollar condominiums are built? Are the new residents respecting and paying homage to the traditional practices of that place? To address these issues, I think we need to better portray and educate others about Hawai‘i. In addition, we need better regulation and enforcement to protect our fragile ecosystem. To achieve these goals, we need communication across borders and cultures.

On both legs of the exchange, I’ve gotten a greater understanding of what conservation looks like, from on-the-ground field work to creating opportunities and engaging people with conservation pathways. I think the most fulfilling and reassuring topics discussed were the value in traditional and/or indigenous knowledge. Correspondingly, some of the most influential experiences throughout this exchange, for me, have been made through the connection and significance of traditional knowledge.

Although, in the end, my greatest take away from the whole exchange is hope. Hope in our leadership seeking new ways to overcome current challenges and empowering young leaders. Hope in our fellow conservation conglomerates that we will strive and commit to be better stewards. Hope in our indigenous people that they will live to see a future not so different from their storied past and share their knowledge to the ones who need it. Hope in humanity living with earth and giving back to that which needs it.

Christopher ‘a‘ālā Zauner is a former Kupu participant who was a part of HYCC-Summer and Conservation Leadership Development Program.

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