One contentious issue is raring its head. An outcome of the Murdock-Ellison ownership transaction is that Murdock keeps the right to build a wind farm, a project that would place windmills on vast acreages of the island and deliver power to the island of Oahu, 120 kilometres to the northwest, through an undersea cable. The idea of a wind farm is clearly being widely resisted, as evidenced by the number of "No Windmills" signs on Lanai's roadsides and sections.
On a small and dusty Hawaiian island, Mike Munro walks in the footsteps of a Kiwi forebear, whose works are being emulated by one of the world’s richest men.
It seems fanciful to think that Larry Ellison – yes, that Larry Ellison, the one of America’s Cup infamy (in Kiwi minds, at least) and fabulous wealth – would have anything in common with a farmer’s son from the backblocks of Auckland who, at age 15, abandoned the classroom and devoted himself to a life on the land.
Big, bad, headstrong Larry Ellison: founder and CEO of the world’s biggest business software company, Oracle. Personal net worth of $55 billion. No 6 on the Forbes list of the world’s richest men.
Owner of the America’s Cup-holding syndicate, Oracle Team USA. Owner of an 80-metre superyacht that boasts a cinema, sauna and gym.
And the farmer’s son? George C Munro, “Geordie” to his family and close friends, one of 11 children born on his parents’ farm in Clevedon, near Auckland.
A youth spent milking cows and working the plough. A dabbler in botany and taxidermy and the study of birds in his spare time. Then, for most of his middle years, a ranch manager in his adopted home of Hawaii.
Yet there is a place where the life paths of these two men intersect, where, in different centuries and different times, both had a vision for enabling an eroded, drought-prone isle in the middle of the Pacific to better sustain itself, and be saved from further degradation.
That place is the small and dusty Hawaiian island of Lanai, separated from its bigger neighbour, Maui, by a 13-kilometre-wide channel of dark, heaving ocean that gives the appearance of being menacingly deep.
Let’s begin with George Munro, or Great-Great Uncle George. Yes, this is a tale with kinship ties – he was one of my great-grandfather’s eight brothers.
It is more than 100 years since Munro got a glimpse of those dark blue waters. He first travelled to Hawaii in 1890, having been shoulder tapped for a bird-collecting expedition funded by Charles Rothschild, scion of what was at that time the richest family in the world.
During this visit, Munro clearly developed a fondness for the tropical isles, for after returning to New Zealand and marrying his sweetheart, Jean Wright Tait, the couple immediately boarded a steamboat for Honolulu.
Through his bird-collecting contacts, Munro secured work as a ranch manager, firstly on Kauai island and later Molokai.
He and his wife and five children were to return to New Zealand in 1906, but in 1911 the family went back to Hawaii when Munro answered a call to run the Lanai Company’s cattle ranch.
Lanai is an island of about 360 square kilometres – an area roughly two-thirds the size of Lake Taupo – and the ranch covered most of it
By 1934, when Munro retired and moved to Honolulu where he continued his conservation work by establishing a 9-acre (3.6 hectare) arboretum, Lanai was well down the road to being the world’s biggest pineapple producer.
The Dole Company had bought the island for US$1 million and from the early 1920s began planting out large swathes of the island, rows of pineapple plants stretching as far as the eye could see. It is said the cultivations covered 18,000 acres, or 72 square kilometres, of the island.
Munro, during his latter years on Lanai, grew increasingly concerned about the island’s fragile ecosystems.
While the term probably wasn’t known then, he engaged in what we’d now call green politics. He saw that the work of mankind was turning much of the ground to dust, so he advocated for the planting of grasses to stop the drift of soil.
Munro cottoned on to the idea of growing Norfolk Island pines to draw the moisture out of the fog and clouds that cling to the island’s ridge line, which rises to 1032m at its highest point, so as to replenish the ground’s moisture levels. Today the island’s skyline is dominated by the fruits of his labours.
Elsewhere on the island he planted trees as windbreaks to dissipate the energy of the northeast trade winds, and urged others to do the same.
The blurb on the jacket of The Story of Lanai, the book that Munro began and his descendants completed after his death in 1963, notes that George Munro “observed, studied and endeavoured to preserve the native plants and animals of Lanai, as well as the remnants of the ancient landscape of the island”.
Fast forward to the 1980s. During that decade, Lanai came into the hands of American billionaire David Murdock when he purchased LA-based global corporation Castle & Cooke, which was by then the owner of Dole. During Murdock’s time as Laird of Lanai the pineapple era came to a close and tourism became the island’s economic mainstay. Two elegant Four Seasons’ resorts and championship golf courses became Lanai’s meal ticket.
Come forward another 20 years or so and meet the latest billionaire to lord it over the island: Lawrence Joseph Ellison, better known as Larry. In 2012 he paid Murdock several hundred million dollars for 98 per cent of Lanai. The exact sum has never been disclosed. Some reports say it was US$300m, others $500m. Whatever, it wouldn’t have made much of a dent in the Ellison fortune.
Ellison has established a new company, Pulama Lanai, to manage his island asset, and the company’s strapline, “Preservation. Progress. Sustainability”, is the core of its message to residents.
The company’s utopian vision will warm the hearts of greenies everywhere: to establish Lanai as an island powered by solar energy, where electric cars replace gasoline-powered vehicles, where sea water is desalinated and used to sustain a new organic farming industry that will feed the island and supply produce for export, and where entrepreneurship is encouraged.
On a visit to Lanai in August, my wife and I encountered a mood of mostly cautious optimism about Ellison’s plans. It is a case of so far, so good. To keep people appraised of what is happening there is a programme of community meetings, though Ellison, who stays on his superyacht Musashi when he visits, has yet to show his face at any of them.
Quite a bit is happening on Lanai at present, locals will tell you. The number of trucks loaded with building materials going back and forth is the most visible sign of this. It is estimated that some 600 construction workers are on the island at present, many of them engaged on a major revamp of the swanky, five-star Manele Bay Four Seasons resort where Bill and Melinda Gates married in 1994 (Gates booked all 250 rooms and hired every helicopter on Maui in order to keep prying media eyes away).
One contentious issue is raring its head. An outcome of the Murdock-Ellison ownership transaction is that Murdock keeps the right to build a wind farm, a project that would place windmills on vast acreages of the island and deliver power to the island of Oahu, 120 kilometres to the northwest, through an undersea cable.
The idea of a wind farm is clearly being widely resisted, as evidenced by the number of “No Windmills” signs on Lanai’s roadsides and sections.
There is much that is quaint about Lanai. The main township is called Lanai City, despite a population of barely 3000.
A local explains that when the “township” was built in the 1920s for pineapple plantation workers, Dole wanted it named Pine City but the United States Post Office demurred, as there were so many places in the US with Pine in their names that it would cause confusion. So, Lanai City it became.
There are no traffic lights or public transport. The speed limit on the island’s main “highway”, a 9km two-lane, mostly-straight, bitumen road from Manele Bay, where the ferry harbour and Manele Bay Four Seasons Resort are located, to Lanai City, is 35mph (56kmh).
The limit is rigorously enforced and new arrivals are warned that they ignore it at their peril. The six (yes, six) highway patrol officers on the island are young and eager, and keen to maximise speeding ticket revenue.
Most residents drive large-ish vehicles – SUVs, ATVs, utes, jeeps and the like. Vehicle hiring protocols are unceremonious, to say the least.
When we accepted our B&B hosts’ offer of a vehicle they handed over the keys to a Cherokee Jeep and said it would cost US$125 a day – no contract, no paperwork whatsoever.
“When you leave, park it at the airport and leave the key on the passenger-side floor.” Which we duly did. Our hosts had no need to retrieve the vehicle straight away as airport parking limits are generous. A sign cautions: “72 hours parking only. Violators will be cited.”
The police focus on speeding drivers may have something to do with low rates of offending among the island’s citizenry. There is so little wrongdoing that the local paper, Lanai Today, lists all misdemeanours. The regular report of offending is headlined, “What’s Happening on Lanai?”
The July summary, for instance, discloses that two adult males and one adult female were arrested during the month and faced seven unspecified charges, while there were 39 citations for a variety of transgressions including speeding, failing to wear a seat belt, vehicle tax and safety violations, and parking incorrectly.
What’s clear to the visitor is that residents like their law-abiding, laidback, lightly populated, slow-paced island the way it is. As long as the new owner, whom the locals routinely refer to as Mr Ellison, does nothing to disturb the special character of the island, you get the sense they’ll go along with his wishes and whims.
Nobody wants to see an upsurge in visitor numbers – despite Lanai’s strong reliance on tourism, albeit high-end tourism (the two resorts are well beyond budget holiday-makers).
Many visitors come for the day, using the 45-minute ferry service that links Lanai with Maui. The day-trippers come to snorkel and swim Lanai’s pristine waters, or drive 4WD vehicles over back roads and bush trails, but they’re off the island by dark.
If the rhetoric from Pulama Lanai, Ellison’s management company, is anything to go by, change will be measured and will take account of local sentiment. So nobody should expect a flurry of development, other than what is being done to reinforce the upscale ambitions of the existing resorts.
Pulama Lanai’s website talks of the need to nurture a sustainable future for the island, and ends its mission statement by declaring: “We are stewards of our land and our community, and we are mindful of the legacy we leave for future generations.” Which brings us back to George Munro.
Fifty years after his death, he remains well known in Hawaii for his conservation work. On Lanai, his reputation has swelled to near on legendary proportions.
An ex-state forester writes in a tribute that when Munro left the island “his signature was everywhere on the land” in the form of pipelines and wells, fog-drip and windbreak plantings.
Today, a 20km bush trail that weaves its way through the Lanai uplands is named after him, as are many plant species, including the rare Munroidendron racemosum, a yellow-flowered forest plant. Flax and manuka that he brought from New Zealand grow beside the Munro Trail.
If Great-Great Uncle George is watching on from the Great Arboretum in the Sky, he will surely be heartened by the new owner’s splendid talk of sustainability.
One hundred years ago Munro could see that preservation of Lanai’s environment had become a pressing issue, and so did something about it.
Now the baton passes to Larry Ellison, billionaire, and his 21st century vision based on clean energy, ample fresh water, self-sufficiency in food, and entrepreneurship.
He reportedly wants to leave the island with a sustainability model that others will want to adopt. It’s not only residents of Lanai who’ll be watching what transpires.
So, too, will descendants of George Munro, rural labourer from the Auckland hinterland.
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