Laura Edmunds '99 Kaakua

As Academy students, Laura Edmunds ’99 Kaakua and Stephanie Chang ’99 Kopp were a two-woman rubbish cleanup crew. Together, they started a group called STOP, Students Taking Over Pollution, and picked up bags and bags of rubbish around the Hawaii Kai area.

The group never really took off beyond the two classmates, but it sparked an interest in environmental issues and volunteer service for Kaakua.

“Looking back, I think the most helpful part of coming to Punahou is that you leave thinking that any audacious dream is reachable with hard work,” said Kaakua.

Today, Kaakua is a Native Lands Project Manager with the Trust for Public Land. It’s a dream job for her, an attorney who focused on environmental law, Hawaiian rights law and real property law while in school.

The Trust for Public Land recently completed a 40-year crusade to protect the Ka Iwi Coast, the 7-mile stretch between Hanauma Bay and Makapu‘u. In her role working on behalf of the trust, Kaakua helped a community group to negotiate the purchase of two remaining Ka Iwi parcels, raise the funds required and permanently restrict development along the coast.

“My work focuses on assisting Native Hawaiian communities, and local communities in general, to protect lands that perpetuate Native Hawaiian culture. Lands that have say, freshwater springs, may be needed for certain cultural practices to thrive. Those practices can’t continue unless they have the lands that sustain those practices,” explained Kaakua.

Before the Ka Iwi land purchase, Kaakua worked in partnership with the National Park Service to protect an ancient fishing village in Kona called Kauleoli. Her work helped protect an ancient coastal path that ran through the property, as well as special ponds and marine resources.

“We really start from a place of ‘what’s best for the land?’ The needs for each piece of land are different, and that determines what partners we should bring in and how we should structure the project.”

With Ka Iwi Coast now preserved in perpetuity, Kaakua is focused on helping another community group purchase and steward land surrounding Kanewai Spring in Kuliouou. It’s a site that Punahou and other schools use for field trips to extend either their mauka or makai curriculum.

“I’ve been impressed by how the Punahou curriculum is centered around ahupua‘a management,” said Kaakua. Her work today might be the inspiration for another generation of Punahou students. Her son, Pono ’28, and his classmates will, hopefully, be able to continue visiting Kanewai Spring, thanks to his mom.