a green Sea turtle at Kiholo Bay (photo by John De Mello).

Bay Watcher

Photography By Nathalie Walker

Nature Conservancy of Hawai’i Chairman Kenton Eldridge moves to revive Kane’ohe Bay’s reef life.

Kenton Eldridge, chairman of the nature conservancy of Hawai’i, knows there’s no place like home and that it just wouldn’t be the same without people to protect its precious natural resources.

Each day, Eldridge, who lives along the five-mile wide Maunalua Bay, is reminded that the nature conservancy of Hawai’i plays an important role in the isles. The bay is as beautiful underneath as it is on the surface due to the recent removal of two million pounds of invasive algae, which were killing the reef and harming native sea grass and marine life. The conservancy partnered with Pono Pacific Land Management LLC and with Malama Maunalua to get the job done. now entering his second year as chairman of the nature conservancy of Hawai’i, Eldridge, his team of trustees, local staff and community partners have expanded their invasive algae removal project to Kane’ohe Bay. work on the $2.5 million project, which aims to clear 60 acres of a 30-year build-up of alien algae, began six weeks ago and is expected to continue into 2015.

To accomplish its goal, the conservancy has built a second super sucker, or underwater vacuum cleaner, and is operating it in tandem with one that was pioneered by the state and the university of Hawai’i. The invention can remove up to 800 pounds of alien algae an hour.

“If you go look at a bay like Kane’ohe and look at the blue water and waves, you would say, ‘That’s a beautiful bay,’ but it’s what is underneath that counts,” says Eldridge.

“If algae kills the reef, you lose the fish that depend on the reef for their food. you would also lose your barrier in big storms.” Eldridge, who is leading the drive to raise another half million or more for the Kane’ohe Bay renewal, says it’s critical that this work be done now.

“If we didn’t stop it, it could conceivably go all the way around O’ahu,” Eldridge says. “it’s already spread as far north as Kualoa Ranch. we’ll need additional money after we complete the first section in 2105. it will take years to complete Kane’ohe Bay.” while Kane’ohe Bay is undeniably a top priority for the nature conservancy of Hawai’i, Eldridge says its mission does not stop there. among the other priorities for the organization, whose annual operating budget of $10 million comes from private donations, government grants and interest from endowments are:

* Preserve the near shoreline and native forests
* Keep the watershed safe
* Expand innovations such as the use of aerial imaging and herbicides to kill invasive weeds with pinpoint accuracy
* Acquire and protect important conservation lands
* Restore Kiholo Bay on Hawai’i island, especially the historic fish ponds that go back to the time of King Kamehameha I
* Promote Palmyra Atoll as a center for science, preserve and national wild-life refuge and marine monument

Eldridge, who served nearly eight months as platoon leader for the U.S. Army Fourth Infantry Division in the central highlands in Pleiku, Vietnam, is now battling for Hawai’i.

“Nothing is more important to humanity than nature, and nature needs our help right now,” he says.

At first glance, Eldridge might have seemed like an unlikely candidate for the role. For starters, he was born and raised in New England and his speech still carries traces of New Hampshire and Connecticut. The son of a department of U.S. Navy civilian, who was part of Admiral Rickover’s nuclear submarine program, Eldridge joined the U.S. Army in 1965 and was stationed as an intelligence officer in West Berlin, Germany before a stint in Vietnam. The six-foot-tall, 179-pound Eldridge was down to 129 pounds when he finished his military engagement.

“Vietnam taught me leadership and time management skills. I learned how to run,” Eldridge says. “It was a very difficult time. It’s still not easy for me to talk about.”

Eldridge’s 1983 introduction to the Hawaiian Islands was far more pleasant. He came to the isles after DFS Hawaii recruited him away from Federated Department Stores, now known as Macy’s.

“It was a difficult decision to come, but made easier by my son’s acceptance to Punahou and my family’s interest in moving to Hawai’i,” he says.

Five years later, Eldridge was transferred to Alaska and from there went to work in Los Angeles, Tokyo and Taiwan. However, when he retired, the family returned to Hawai’i.

“It was one of the nicest places that we had ever lived and my son had moved back here,” he says.

Eldridge got involved with the Nature Conservancy of Hawai’i about 12 years ago when then chairman Jeff Watanabe asked him to become a trustee.

“He’s had extraordinary accomplishments in his life. In my world, if you want to get something done, find someone busy. He was at the top of my list,” says Watanabe, who has known Eldridge for the past 30 years as a business colleague and friend. “If you were looking for a tree-hugger, would you look for a guy in high-end retail?-probably not. But for conservation to work you really need cooperation and collaboration with environmental groups, government and businesses. The diversity of his background was really important.”

Long-time friend Duncan McNaughton, who also served as a past chairman of the conservancy, says Eldridge’s broad exposure to the Pacific Basin brings credence to his position. He also walks the talk, McNaughton says.

“He’s outside a lot,” he says. “He’s been a marathoner and triathlete and he works out daily at the Honolulu Club.”

Eldridge says his role with the conservancy started out as an interest, but accelerated into a passion.

“It’s been a very important part of my life, I spent a great deal of time on conservation issues,” he says. “It is something that I hope that my children and grandchildren will share in future years.”

Eldridge and Lori, his wife of almost 45 years, live near their son Christopher, his wife Wana’ao and their grandchildren 8-year-old Gabriel and 5-year-old Raffaella. All enjoy the now-cleaner bay near their homes.

Suzanne Case, executive director of the Nature Conservancy of Hawai’i, says the Eldridges often open their Maunalua Bay home to assist with the non-profit’s mission.

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