Fighting For What’s Left Of HawaiiDespite not owning a pair of hiking boots at the time, Marti Townsend was hired to lead Sierra Club in Hawaii last June, and she’s become a staunch advocate at the Legislature and elsewhere for conserving the Islands’ fragile environment
If an allusion to the Sierra Club conjures visions of avid outdoorsmen communing with pristine mountains, meet Marti Townsend. This feisty, young policy advocate with a spirited sense of humor is as comfortable confronting legislative and complex budgetary matters as she is in a courtroom. And then there’s Sierra Club’s raison d’être, which has Townsend literally handling planet-preserving issues on a daily basis.
The one thing she’s not comfortable with is hiking boots.
“I’m not an outdoorsy person. My natural habitat is an office, the Capitol, meeting rooms — that’s where I thrive,” Townsend told the Sierra Club of Hawaii board when she was signing on as director last June. “I felt the need for full disclosure that I’m actually not that big on hiking.”
Board members encouraged Townsend to join them on a group excursion, and she acquiesced, proudly donning a pair of hiking shoes that she’d had in her possession for some time.
“I’m showing the hiking boots off, and they explained to me very directly that those were definitely not hiking boots, they were walking shoes,” laughs Townsend.
Hiking boots or not, she’s a tenacious leader who tackles issues that matter, from preserving our pristine mountains to our water sources and fighting for sustainable energy. Townsend was at the forefront Jan. 20 at a People Over Profits rally at the Capitol, where hundreds of concerned citizens from 30 organizations sought to bring awareness to people and planet versus exploitative corporations. Lately, she’s been a fixture at the Legislature, lobbying for bills geared toward protecting Hawaii’s unique environment.
“I’ve always been an advocate. That’s part of my DNA, to push for the things I want to see in the world,” says Townsend, who grew up in Aiea and attended Moanalua High School, Boston University and UH’s William S. Richardson law school, approaching environmental law from a social justice platform. “In high school and college I did a lot of advocacy around civil rights — fairness, justice and influencing government. I appreciate the position that many of the professors in the William S. Richardson program take to the question of environmental protection being one of justice and of protecting essential qualities of our way of life here, and how intimately intertwined it is with the environment. In Hawaii, the relationship between people and the environment is particularly strong, which creates the unique culture we have.”
Townsend came to Sierra Club of Hawaii straight from her role as executive director of The Outdoor Circle. On a daily basis, she teams up with relevant state agencies, from Department of Land and Natural Resources and its Commission on Water Resource Management, to Department of Health to make a qualitative difference in the earth, sea and sky, for the people, plants and critters of Hawaii. She’s also fervently engaged in statewide public education and outreach.
One of the club’s top focuses this year is the Sept. 1-10 International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Conservation Congress, which brings together a pool of government leaders, businesses, agencies, organizations and indigenous groups every four years for dialogue and deliberation on key global conservation issues. Being the incredible realm of biodiversity that Hawaii is, we were chosen to host the 2016 convention.
Meanwhile, the club also is busy planning for a June activist training camp (see sierraclubhawaii.org for updates and to apply).
“The camp,” says Townsend,” is for people who are interested in learning skills and tactics for advocating for things that we all want to see in the world. It’ll be a long weekend with overnight camping and opportunities to get to know fellow advocates for the environment.”
One of the most pressing issues the club has been tending to is a bill seeking to divest Hawaii of pension fund holdings in fossil fuel companies, which rely on coal and oil. These energy sources are not renewable and are believed to contribute to climate change.
“We want to send the message that Hawaii is done with fossil fuels,” says Townsend. “We have the opportunity to raise a better path for future generations, relying on local, cheap, renewable energy. We’re hoping we can serve as a model for other communities that have similar commitments and opportunities. The divestment issue helps to elevate and amplify the tangible work the state is doing to commit to our 100 percent renewable energy future.”
In line with that cause is lobbying against NextEra’s bid to acquire HECO, noting that NextEra is about big energy and not attuned to the causes of “local” and “renewable.”
“Climate change is a significant existential threat for these Hawaiian Islands, and we need to get real about how we are going to effectively handle the change we’re already experiencing,” Townsend points out. “We’re going to have more severe weather events, and we don’t have the infrastructure in place to prepare ourselves for that. We are already experiencing sea level rise, and we don’t have the infrastructure in place to handle that. While we’re starting to be on the right trajectory in terms of the way in which we consume energy, there’s still a lot we can do to make sure Hawaii can survive climate change.”
With much work to be done, Townsend lists Sierra Club of Hawaii’s dedicated group of volunteers and supporters as one of the elements that most attracted
her to the club. Gone are the days of all-night work and doing-it-yourself for this mom of three young keiki, ages 1, 6 and 9. It’s that group collaboration, the coming together of many individuals who are personally invested in a mutual cause that makes the club the pillar of fortitude that it is.
“We do have paid staff, but one of the things that attracted me to Sierra Club is the fact that these conversations about protecting the environment are volunteer-led. If we didn’t have staff-run decisions, maybe we wouldn’t have had the chutzpah to (launch initiatives like the divestment bill).
“Another thing that impressed me about Sierra Club is how much is going on. I’ve got to pace myself so I can keep up with the volunteers because they are all really enthusiastic and passionate, and they run with it. My job is to keep up.”
Besides the core few who advocate at the agency level, the club’s 12,000 members and supporters across the state offer their help on all fronts. While the bulk donate funds, others are action-driven to give of their time in a variety of ways, whether going into the forest for trail restoration, or leading community members on educational hikes.
Perhaps what makes Townsend the right woman for the job is that she is intimately motivated about her work, referring to the club as her family. Even in her free time, Townsend is a problem-solver.
She might not be drawn to them thar hills, but she does like gardening, and her home workshop is a place of inspiration.
“I enjoy the act of figuring out how to get things to grow and I also enjoy fixing things. Thankfully, I have three kids, so I have a huge source of broken stuff on a regular basis. I’m constantly tinkering and trying to figure out how to make things work again. I enjoy the immediate gratification when you finally get something to work that was broken. I love that.”
The same principle holds true for her work with Sierra Club of Hawaii. She’s problem solving at a macro-level how to best manage the health of Hawaii’s natural resources for the people of our Islands. And she invites those with a kindred interest to join in.
“Whether your family has been here for seven generations or whether you’re relatively new to Hawaii, I think everyone will agree that it’s a place we want to protect and make sure that it endures for generations to come. We have to recognize that we’re all in this together and when we work together for goals that benefit all of us, we’re better off.”
And so is this beautiful state with its 25,000 native plants and animals, this place of unparalleled ecological richness so many of us are fortunate to call home.