Mauka to makai

Features - Mauka to makai

Part 3: Malama ‘aina (To care for the land) The third installment of a four-part series looking at the people, practices and partnerships behind the stunning golf on Hawaii’s Big Island.

June 13, 2018

photo courtesy of Gina Rizzi

Mauna Kea Resort now houses more geese than golf holes, causing a surge in morale among the workers responsible for maintaining the 36-hole facility.

Viewed as a turf-stomping, feces-dispersing nuisance at many mainland golf courses, geese are desired residents at Mauna Kea. What’s good for business at the patriarch of resort golf on Hawaii’s Big Island is also positive for what Hawaiians deem sacred.

Malama ‘aina, which means “to care for the land,” drives management decisions on the island – and makes stopping to appreciate geese an acceptable practice.

Hawaii’s state bird? Yes, it’s a goose. Hawaiians consider nene in a class of its own. Nene measure 24 to 27 inches and use partially webbed feet to skirt along lava rock. Fewer than 2,000 reside in the state, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services’ Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office.

Mauna Kea had four resident nene three years ago. By the end of 2017, the population eclipsed 40. The GPS system in the resort’s carts even alerts golfers of their presence. More nene means more evidence Mauna Kea, which hugs the Pacific Ocean, is protecting the land.

The Federal Endangered Species Act listed nene as an endangered species in 1967, the same year Lady Bird Johnson called Mauna Kea developer and businessman Laurance Rockefeller “America’s leading conservationist.” If Johnson and Rockefeller were around today, they would be delighted by the work of Big Island superintendents and their teams.

Mauna Kea released a sustainability case study last year. The report determined baselines, documented successes and established benchmarks after conducting interviews and collecting consumption data from 2015-16. The report entails all divisions of the resort, including golf course maintenance. Former director of golf course maintenance Scott Main and his team demonstrated a leadership role, removing wayward turf, converting playing areas to less-thirsty paspalum grasses, switching to energy-efficient John Deere hybrid vehicles, conducting regular water quality testing and trapping invasive species such as mongoose to create nene-friendly habitat. “Culturally, the environment is huge, especially with the ocean being here,” says Main, who became director of golf course maintenance at another Big Island gem, Nanea Golf Club, last December.

The ocean drives numerous golf course maintenance decisions at Kohanaiki, the newest – and perhaps most scrutinized – course on the island. After stalling during the Great Recession, the anticipated development opened in 2013.

The private residential community featuring an 18-hole Rees Jones-designed golf course sits adjacent to a public beach park. Visitors to the beach park travel through the same entrance gate as members of the exclusive club. The beach park borders the green of the par-5 12th hole.

Agronomy manager Joey Przygodzinski, a Big Island native, heard whispers from friends that the club would change the dynamic of the beach park, one of the best public access areas on the Kona (west) side of the Big Island. Przygodzinski and his team help maintain the public beach park.

“A lot of my friends were opposing the project when they found out that they were going to be changing the beach park around and having this private residential community with a golf course,” he says. “It was a tough position to hold. But I think, in the end, the project has always created jobs for the community and what we have done to preserve the natural resources here goes beyond what they were prior to just having the land be stagnant.”

The 14th hole, one of six with ocean views, demonstrates how caring for the land coincides with golf course maintenance. Two of the course’s 14 Ahu – sacred rock shrines – are found on the hole, one positioned between the forward and back tees, another one behind the green. The hole meanders through lava rock, which supports anchialine ponds. Przygodzinski oversees a team responsible for maintaining the more than 200 protected ponds. The work is grueling because machines aren’t permitted in the ponds. But pond management is a critical element of what Przygodzinski calls Kohanaiki’s “natural resource plan.”

Workers are responsible for pond remediation and restoration. This means using their hands to remove invasive plant species such as pickleweed and mosquito fish. The results of the work are becoming evident this year, Przygodzinski says. The ponds not only sparkle – members often comment on their beauty – but native birds flock to them.

Hawaiian stilt, known on the island as the ae’o, live on the Kohanaiki grounds. Although they aren’t residents, nene visit Kohanaiki. When the course opened, the birds didn’t know how to react to humans, says Joey Kaeka, a member of the Kohanaiki crew since 2013. “But now they feel comfortable here,” he adds. Kohanaiki workers have created nest siting sites for ae’o.

Signage to guide visitors is placed throughout the grounds at Four Seasons Resort Hualalai.
© guy cipriano

Indigenous species comprise 90 percent of Kohanaiki’s plant and tree material, according to Przygodzinski. Coconut palms, for example, dot both sides of the 14th fairway. Przygodzinski counts 10 different species among the more than 1,400 coconut palms on the grounds.

The turf on the 14th hole, along with the other 17, is SeaDwarf paspalum. Instead of irrigating turf via water received from one deep well, Kohanaiki pulls water closer to the surface from eight wells. The water is then processed in a Reverse Osmosis system, which produces multiple blends. Former University of Hawaii professor and anchialine pond specialist Dr. Richard Brock frequently tests Kohanaiki’s water.

“As a superintendent, just talking about watershed in general is huge,” Kohanaiki superintendent Luke Bennett says. “We are always concerned about water. But when you are this close to the ocean, every drop of water that is coming down the hill and through your golf course and migrates toward the ocean is your responsibility.”

“And it’s not only how we apply water. It’s how we manage stormwater, how we manage our pumping, so the aquifers are sustainable. Water management is critical for any golf course superintendent. I think it’s just much more critical when you are on a property that’s much closer to the ocean.”

Mauna Kea also has implemented a water quality testing program, partnering with the University of Hawaii at Hilo to monitor conditions in the Puako, a coral reef network along the Kohala Coast. A combination of water quality testing and adopting a slow-release fertilizer program helped Mauna Kea prove it wasn’t the source of an algae bloom discovered last August.

Documenting progress and inputs, both externally and internally, is a major component of Mauna Kea’s sustainability plan, says Gina Rizzi, principal of Radius Sports Group, which works with Mauna Kea to develop and implement sustainability initiatives. Documentation is especially important in an environmentally sensitive region such as Hawaii, where locals establish deep personal and economic connections to the land.

“When you are transparent with the data and transparent with the processes and show that there are families employed there, plus people in the community who are being served by what you do, it establishes a level of trust,” Rizzi says. “From an internal perspective, it’s important because it shows employees how they can continuously improve. When we determine the data and share it not just with the management team, but with the employees, it gets everybody aligned around a common goal and then it makes them feel good. It’s inspiring to employees when they can see the good their organization does.”

Kona Country Club has implemented an extensive recycling program as part of its resource protection efforts.
© guy cipriano

How important is land in Hawaii? Visitors are required to sign a state Department of Agriculture Declaration form when flying into the state. The form is designed to prevent visitors from bringing invasive animals and pets into Hawaii. Luggage and carry-on items then undergo an agriculture inspection when visitors depart.

Protecting land represents a major legislative emphasis, with elected officials formally beginning the Aloha+ Challenge in 2014. The effort identifies six lofty goals to be achieved by 2030 in clean energy transformation, local food production, natural resource management, solid waste reduction, smart sustainable communities, and green workforce and education. The state created an Aloha+ Challenge web dashboard to document progress respective to each goal.

When conducting her research at Mauna Kea, Rizzi immediately noticed a land ethic that doesn’t exist in many other places. “It’s really part of the DNA of the people, not just the native Hawaiians, but really all the people in Hawaii,” she says. “They just absorb that sense of respect for the land.”

Malama ‘aina factors into every decision Dan Husek makes as director of golf course maintenance at Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, a coastal facility with 18 resort and 18 private holes. Both courses were constructed on porous lava rock, meaning inputs can potentially enter groundwater and reach the ocean.

Agronomy manager Joey Przygodzinski helps oversee Kohanaiki’s natural resource plan.

Defined brown lines, signifying borders between turf and lava rock, illustrate the result of a calculated fertilization program. Three spreaders are used to disperse granular fertilizer in fairways and rough, including a walking rotary spreader along edges. The process might be labor intensive, but it’s crucial to protect what separates the Big Island from other places.

When discussing his management programs, Husek, an Illinois native who has lived on the Big Island since 2004, uses slightly different vernacular than mainland superintendents. He refers to a spray technician, for example, as an integrated pest manager. “The land is special,” he says. “That’s why this property is so unique. The land is a big part of it. We want to try to maintain it the right way and make sure we are doing things the right way.”

Kona Country Club superintendent Derrick Watts also hails from the mainland, but he’s spent the past 14 years living and working in Hawaii. His management program at Kona Country Club involves displaying extreme caution when operating around course borders, monitoring wildlife and implementing a comprehensive recycling program.

Watts has a letter to editor from a local newspaper, West Hawaii Today, hanging in his office. The letter, published on April 11, 2016, three months after Kona Country Club reopened following a lengthy renovation, raises questions about noise and increased resident green fees, yet praises efforts made by Watts early in his tenure to communicate with neighbors, improve aesthetics along course borders and adjust irrigation patterns. Two years later, the letter still motivates Watts and his team. “PR is especially important around here,” Watts says.

Whether it’s a public course, resort facility or private development, malama ‘aina guides golf course maintenance decisions on the Big Island. Given the land’s value as a provider for residents and indigenous species, superintendents hold tremendous responsibility.

“We don’t want to do anything that’s unrighteous,” Przygodzinski says. “Anything we do or say, anything we preach or practice, is always to preserve our culture and natural resources out here.”

Guy Cipriano is GCI’s senior editor.