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Blue Waters Exchange: Connecting ideas and cultures across the Pacific

CALIFORNIA—How far would you travel to follow your passion?

Four students from Tahoe Basin recently left alpine forests and granite peaks to cross the vast Pacific Ocean for the Forest Service’s Blue Waters Exchange May 28–June 8. The program brings together young adults from California and Hawaii to explore cross-cutting cultural and natural resource issues facing both states.

The Hawaii leg of the journey is the second phase of a two-part exchange. Last summer, five students from Hawaii left coconut palms and ʻōhiʻa lehua, a native Hawaiian tree, to learn conservation and land management concepts from their Forest Service counterparts in California.

Upon arriving in Honolulu, the Tahoe group dove into a two-week expedition across ecosystems, cultures and forestry research on Oahu and Hawaii islands. Highlights of the students’ excursions include:

  • Exploring Mount Ka’ala, the highest point on Oahu, and a native Hawaiian rainforest. Here participants learned the critical role native ecosystems play in clean water and habitat for endangered species like the endemic Hawaiian snail.
  • Restoring land in the Ahupua'a of He'eia. Ahupua’a is a type of land division similar to a county. Students prepared the land to plant the culturally important Kalo, or taro plant, a nutritious staple in the Hawaiian diet. Students learned healthy landscapes contribute to healthy people.
  • Visiting experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric center to learn about ocean birds, Hawaiian green sea turtles and how climate changes affect these animals.
  • Learning from Forest Service scientists at the Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry about Rapid 'Ohi'a Death and Albizia trees. These scientists research forest health issues across the Hawaiian Islands.
  • Planting 'Ohi'a trees to restore native ecosystems and watersheds.
Photo: Line of kids crosses pond on line of rocks.
Kupu and Lake Tahoe students got their hands dirty on Day 3 as they visited Papahana Kuaola, located in the Ahupua'a of He'eia on Oahu. Forest Service photo.
Photo: Young people in field treat invasive plants.
Students removed invasive blackberry plants at Mt. Ka’ala Natural Area Reserve, Oahu Island, Hawaii. Forest Service photo.

Throughout their experiences, students were introduced to various types of expertise. They were encouraged to consider various ways to engage a range of experts, while honoring traditional knowledge and caring for the ‘āina, or land.

“In Tahoe, I’m connected to the land by doing work around the forest and making it better,” said Adilene Negrete after returning to South Lake Tahoe from Hawaii. Negrete is a Forest Service Generation Green Alumni now working in environmental education. “After going to Hawaii and seeing how people are connected to the land there, I realize there are many ways to care for the land. It’s deeper, more spiritual and they’re connected to the land through their ancestors. . . It’s pretty cool to experience and get to learn about different ways of caring for the land.”

Discovering “different ways of caring for the land” is one of the primary purposes of Blue Waters. The program is a recent collaboration between the Forest Service’s California youth education program, Generation Green, and Kupu, a Forest Service youth and conservation partner in the Hawaiian Islands.

The Forest Service’s vision of Blue Waters is to promote environmental and cultural awareness in the next generation of California’s and Hawaii’s environmental stewards through increasing environmental literacy and awareness, broadening an understanding of natural resource management challenges across California and Hawaii and providing opportunities to collaborate across diverse resources and cultures. Participants were chosen based on their completion of each organization’s environmental education program.

On the western side of the Pacific, Chris Zauner, a Kupu alumni from Kauai, explains that the exchange broadened his view of conservation beyond what he knew in Hawaii. “The Blue Waters exchange has expanded my perspective to a greater global scale of conservation efforts. It has given me a better idea of what a steward looks like, and how to promote that lifestyle of loving the land.”

For these students, crossing the Pacific Ocean—in either direction—was not too far to travel to follow their passion for understanding the natural resource issues facing their states. If anything, Blue Waters is only the beginning to a lifelong journey of learning and stewardship.

Interested in learning more about the Blue Waters Exchange?

You can relive the adventure and hear from participants in their own words via the Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit’s Facebook page. Check out photos of their adventures on Flickr. Last year, Puakea Mo’okini-Oliveira, a Kupu alumna, also shared her perspective of the California portion of the exchange.

Photo: Group in hard hats gathered on side of forest road.
Blue Waters Exchange students met with Forest Service scientists on the Big Island of Hawaii to learn about Rapid 'Ohi'a Death and Albizia plants. Scientists from the Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry are researching ways to address these forest health issues across the Hawaiian islands. Forest Service photo.
Photo: Students listen to scientist holding insect trap.
Forest Service scientist explains how insects can spread forest diseases such as Rapid 'Ohi'a Death, a serious forest health issue on the Big Island of Hawaii. Forest Service photo.