A stalwart of environmental activism in Hawai‘i has died. Marjorie Fern Yasue Ziegler the long-time executive director of Conservation Council for Hawai‘i passed away at her family home in Kane‘ohe on October 10. She was 62.
Marjorie, who was an early Environment Hawai‘i board member and life-long supporter, came to her calling organically. Her father, Alan C. Ziegler was a prominent vertebrate zoologist who was active in conservation issues dating to his doctoral days at UC Berkeley. Marjorie often cited specimen gathering expeditions in the Sierras with her dad as incubating an ethic that would later find expression in an ardent advocacy for Hawai‘i’s native plants and animals.
However, the path to prominence as a leader in the struggle to preserve Hawai‘i’s unique natural gifts was initially meandering. When her dad accepted a position at the Bishop Museum the transition from Berkeley to Kane‘ohe at age 10 was jolting. While her hapa heritage might have suggested a relatively seamless integration, white socks with slippers and other breaches of local etiquette were an improbable beginning for what would become a life defined by a passionate commitment to her island home.
But, by the time I met her at the University of Hawai‘i in 1986 her local bona fides were well established courtesy of Windward public education and finishing school at the hands of the severe Mrs. Aoyama at Uptown Hardware, the ill-tempered cook at The Skillet in Kailua, and other employers of provincial pedigree. By then she could “pidgin-out” like a keiki o ka ‘aina.
Still, despite, or perhaps because of her father’s academic success, her arrival at the university was not a forgone conclusion. As a friend once noted, Marj could be “hard head,” an observation occasionally endorsed by subsequent others.
And so, eschewing parental prodding, the meandering path: Mrs. Aoyama, the bakery, the restaurants. Gradually, however, a reconsideration of her father’s commitment to science and service emerged beginning with a job assisting archaeologists at Kualoa Regional Park and summers with kids in the City & County’s Summer Fun program. Then Windward Community College where Gary Stice made geology fun, and ultimately U.H. Manoa.
As a classmate in Geography of Hawai‘i she was wide-eyed and still a little uncertain about her suitability to academia, but increasingly engaged by the ideas and people she encountered. The graduation photo is quintessentially local: beaming parents and friends, lei nearly eye-level. The pride is palpable. Especially her Poppa. The undergraduate experience offered a glimpse of possibilities, still undefined, but alluring enough that she applied to grad school. It wasn’t obvious then, but she was on her way. No more The Skillet.
The UH Geography Department, with its broad conceptual understanding of the discipline’s role in human and natural affairs, attracted an uncommonly diverse cadre of graduate students. There she found support for her growing determination to protect Hawai‘i’s threatened and endangered species. And she found friendships that would endure the rest of her life. She was proud to be a geographer.
After grad school a natural trajectory: an internship at the Nature Conservancy with Audrey Newman whose commitment and rigor was influential; 14 years as a resource analyst at the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund/Earthjustice, where daily exposure to environmental law and committed attorneys informed and inspired; then briefly with KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance before becoming the first full-time executive director of Conservation Council for Hawai‘i.
The rest is well-documented history. In the course of 15 years she transformed and became synonymous with CCH; a forceful, ubiquitous and effective presence in the endless struggle to protect and preserve the irreplaceable, giving voice to the voiceless, opposing powerful forces for whom her constituency had no value, and, perhaps most importantly, inspiring others.
It was hard work and she worked too hard. But it was hardly thankless. In many ways it was its own reward. She was imbued with a strong sense of justice. Her father, a Southerner, had been a Freedom Rider during the civil rights era of the 1960s. In Hawai‘i he made legal history as a plaintiff on behalf of the endangered palila. She shared his impulse to defend the disadvantaged.
Marjorie’s passing at 62 inclines us to console with the adage that it was a well-lived life. And it was. But it also feels unjust. She had that feeling when her father died at 74 in 2003. But Alan Ziegler was both idealistic and pragmatic. As a scientist he knew that justice was a human concept not resident in nature. Marjorie was Alan’s daughter so she carried on. Which is what she would want from the those who mourn her loss.
— Doug Lamerson