A small nonprofit is using a Windward Oahu marsh as its classroom as it works to restore a fragile ecosystem and educate Hawaii residents on the impact of climate change.

It is typical of many of the organizations that make up Hawaii’s not-for-profit community. With no paid staff, it relies on volunteers, a small grant, and collaboration with other like-minded groups.

“I felt that not enough was being done,” Lisa Marten told me, explaining why she left her career in public health and research to found Healthy Climate Communities and focus on climate change. “I asked what I could do as a non-specialist. I can learn.”

Marten brings academic and scientific pedigrees to the nonprofit world. After growing up in Kailua and Mexico, she went on to earn a master’s degree from Harvard University and a doctorate from Columbia University in public health. She worked in Central America to bring better nutrition to Guatemalan children. Her academic career included HIV research at the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine.

And, as a journalist, she covered the United Nations Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 that seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale.

Marten’s classroom is Hamakua Marsh, not far from where she grew up. Located along Hamakua Drive on the south edge of Kailua, it is home to many species of native Hawaiian plants and birds and, along with the adjacent Kawainui Marsh, is the state’s largest wetland habitat.

Hamakua Marsh was once a stream flowing between Kawainui Marsh and what is now Enchanted Lake. When the water flow was diverted, Hamakua became dependent on rainfall and runoff from Kailua Town.

“Sometimes you end up in a field because of the timing,” Marten said of her decision to seek collaboration with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, which owns the marsh land. Since 2015, Healthy Climate Communities has overseen the planting of more than 2,300 native Hawaiian trees and other plants and installed a drip water irrigation system. The Harold K.L. Castle Foundation donated $20,000 for materials and contracting work.

Last year, Hamakua Marsh was host to more than 1,000 visitors, many of them students ranging from second grade to high school. Marten works directly with teachers, mostly from private schools, to schedule visits that include tree planting and information about climate change, which she says is not being taught in many local classrooms.

They learn, for example, that wetlands account for only about 3 percent of the earth’s land surface but store about a third of the planet’s soil carbon. The scientific term is carbon sequestration, but Marten uses the simpler definition of trees as “super carbon storage machines.”

She also prefers to call what’s happening to our planet “climate change” instead of “global warming,” which can be misinterpreted .She says science has proven that the earth’s climate is changing in bad ways due to the increase in greenhouse gasses from the burning of fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas. The most important issue now is owning up to the need to deal with the impact of climate change, she says.

That is the driving force behind Healthy Climate Communities’ two main goals, in addition to preserving Hamakua Marsh. One goal is to educate people about climate change through the hands-on workshops. The other is to lobby state and local governments to end Hawaii’s dependence on fossil fuels.

A 2015 state law mandates a complete conversion to renewable energy by 2045. Healthy Climate Communities supports the law and is lobbying to close loopholes that are slowing the pace of change. One example of a loophole: The law requires new residential developments to install solar water heaters, but the state has interpreted the law’s language to allow gas-powered heaters in many instances.

Healthy Climate Communities also actively supports Trees for Honolulu’s Future, which seeks to plant 100,000 trees by 2025 and increase Oahu’s urban tree canopy to 35 percent by 2035.

“It’s a matter of changing the mentality,” Marten says, citing property owners who have no qualms about cutting down trees to improve their view planes. “We’re losing canopy. We need to teach people to be more tolerant.”

Like many nonprofits, Healthy Climate Communities is seeking more visibility. Marten wants to raise money through grants and donations to hire two part-time employees and is seeking more teachers who are willing to commit to the Hamakua Marsh workshops.

“The kids know the words,” she says of their knowledge of climate change. She wants them to understand why preserving a marsh is important, and how they at a young age can begin to make changes in a world they will inherit.

For more information on Healthy Climate Communities, go to HealthyClimateCommunities.org. Contact Dr. Lisa Marten at HealthyClimate@hawaii.rr.com.

In this monthly feature, former newspaper editor and columnist Jim George visits with organizations that make up Hawaii’s not-for-profit community. He can be reached at jamesrgeorge@hawaii.rr.com.

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