Cynthia Oi Under the Sun

Cynthia Oi

Misdeeds, dissembling
can eclipse credibility

My favorite national park grew by 116,000 acres earlier this month when Kahuku Ranch land was added to its spread.

The sale of the land, which had been in the works for years, increases Hawaii Volcanoes National Park's 217,000 acres by 50 percent. The addition encompasses pastures, but also Hawaiian archaeological sites and habitats for rare and endangered birds and plant species, such as the stunning, elegant Kau silversword. The deal keeps a huge swath of the island from commercial and residential development.

The land was bought through a partnership of the park service and the Nature Conservancy. Tree-hugger that I am, I was pleased, but my delight was subdued because my trust in the Conservancy was eroded when the Washington Post in May reported the group had engaged in some questionable practices and misadventures.

I had long admired the Conservancy and its approach to conservation. Instead of fighting governments and land-use laws, the group's niche was to raise money and acquire property. But since its 1951 formation, the Conservancy has become an entity the Post described as "Big Green," having amassed $3 billion in assets.

The Conservancy appears to have become tangled in actions that benefited some of its insiders. The Post detailed the group's sale of desirable land to past and current trustees who then donated the same land to the Conservancy, gaining big tax deductions in the process. The Post also exposed huge loans made to organization officials, some of them interest- free, as well as the Conservancy's disturbing problems with courting corporate partners, some of whom have dirty environmental records.

The Conservancy has made significant accomplishments globally. It was my own naive notion that a group with such admirable aims must be righteous and flawlessly ethical -- all good, all the time.

I don't know if the Post's revelations have severely affected the Conservancy. It can't have helped. The newspaper reported last week that a U.S. Senate panel is asking questions and seeking records from the group, which -- despite its ties to big-money corporations -- still depends on donations from ordinary people to support its work.

Like many other nonprofits, the Conservancy banks on its image, its credibility and benefactors' trust in its propriety and when those are fouled, people tend to turn away. The Conservancy, however, is a private organization; you can choose not to engage, not give them any of your money.

The credibility of government officials and leaders is another matter. When political leaders shade or twist the truth, the stakes are higher. So once people in the Bush administration decided it was OK to exaggerate Iraq's nuclear designs, they scarred themselves and the nation's trustworthiness.

It is puzzling why the president's men and women thought it necessary to raise the vision of a nuclear-armed Saddam Hussein when the horrible realities of the dictator's evil-doings were numerous enough for them to rationalize their desire for war. It was overkill.

Now they've chosen to shuffle off the responsibility of intelligence data on to British shoulders, to declare that Bush was "technically correct," to put the blame on the CIA's chief, to claim they didn't know the data was weak and they didn't really read the part of the report that said it was bogus. Whatever.

I was on vacation near the park when I read about its expansion. On a rare sunny day, I spent the afternoon on the slopes of Mauna Loa, looking across lava fields, deserts and forests. I was glad that the land to the south and west would become part of the park, glad that the organization had the wherewithal to preserve it.

Weather and altitude provides clarity to the air up there, lending as much sharpness to cinder cones that were miles distant as to the fat ohelo berries a few feet away. I wish my muddled feelings of trust could be similarly cleared.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Cynthia Oi has been on the staff of the Star-Bulletin since 1976.
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