Invasive vegetation crawled across barren farmland and the irrigation system fell into disrepair after the withdrawal of the sugarcane industry in 1996 from a 40-square-mile plot on the north shore of Oahu.
The abandoned farmland, part of a former sugar plantation, is owned by a trust, Kamehameha Schools , and it needed to be repurposed after a century in sugar cultivation. In 2006 the trust partnered with Stanford environmental researchers at the Natural Capital Project and embarked on a two-year process to determine the impacts of various land use alternatives, hoping to find the best use for the land.
Kamehameha Schools is no ordinary landholder. It is a philanthropic trust established as the dying wish of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop (the last living descendent of King Kamehameha I) with the mission of ensuring an education for all youth of Hawaiian descent.
Today the trust supports an educational system that serves approximately 30,000 children and is subsidized by the income generated on a diverse set of leases on endowed properties. These numerous properties add up to rank Kamehameha Schools as the largest private landowner in Hawaii, holding more than 8 percent of the state.
As such a major player, Kamehameha Schools takes its influence in the community seriously. The land-use decision-making process for the north shore of Oahu was a two-year formal conversation between the trust and the local community, with the formal mission to "balance environmental, economic, cultural, educational and community values."
Yet, despite best-practice methods, the trust didn’t find it easy to turn the mission of environmental stewardship into something tangible. "Intuitively, you know what will be good for the environment, but that was all just based on faith," said the regional asset manager for the trust, Giorgio Caldarone. "We couldn’t really quantitatively understand the trade-offs."
Stanford researchers from the Natural Capital Project teamed up with the trust to help determine the fate of the farm, with the goal of providing ecological models for decision-makers.
"It was a very organic process of figuring out what to model," said Stanford researcher Josh Goldstein , who led the study and is now an assistant professor at Colorado State University. "The trust was trying to capture the futures for the land that the community desired and we were trying to illustrate those stories. . . . We were turning stories into something very concrete that could help them make a decision."
Overall, the team spent two years working closely with the trust to help determine what should happen to the abandoned farmland. Team members spent time getting to know the fabric of the region, from the complex pressures exerted on local lands right down to the details of soil characteristics for every 90 square meters of the property.
As in much of the world, Hawaii is facing unprecedented pressures on its land base as an ever-expanding population demands residential and commercial development. At the same time, planners must grapple with a myriad of issues, such as food security, unemployment and environmental sustainability.
Ultimately, the decision broke down into three scenarios: growing sugarcane for fuel; diversifying agriculture and forestry; or selling the lands for a residential housing development.