Montana State University

MSU students team up to help Hawaiian ranch become more sustainable

November 24, 2008 -- Anne Pettinger, MSU News Service

MSU architecture and business students have helped formulate a sustainable development plan for a large ranch in Hawaii. This artist's rendering, courtesy of the MSU School of Architecture, shows plans for a pump house on the ranch.    High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
Montana State University architecture and business students have spent the semester working on a sustainable development plan for a large ranch in Hawaii. As they find ways to both conserve and develop the land, professors say the project has challenges that are similar to ones faced in Montana.

The ranch, which is located on the east side of the Big Island of Hawaii, spans an area of about 10,000 acres, rising from sea level to about 9,000 feet.

In September, two MSU professors and six architecture students visited the ranch, gathering information to aid in their work throughout the semester.

"We looked at the big picture, such as how create a plan that protects the land, is consistent with the cultural values in Hawaii, is self-sustaining, and benefits the community," said Myleen Leary, an MSU College of Business professor who is directing the business students' work.

"Some of these ideas address larger issues the state and island is facing," Leary added. "It's not just for the benefit of the family."

The ranch's owners -- a family -- are interested in keeping the 10,000 acres intact and simultaneously having it pay for itself, said John Brittingham, the architecture professor who is directing architecture students' work on the project.

The MSU students became involved in the project after ranch personnel approached a non-profit in Hawaii, the Kohala Center, about helping develop the ranch and make it more sustainable, according to Brittingham. MSU had worked with the Kohala Center on a different project about four years earlier, and Brittingham said the non-profit was thrilled with the results. Because of that interaction, Brittingham said the Kohala Center again turned to MSU.

But another reason MSU students may have been chosen to work on the project is because parallels exist between the Big Island and Montana, with both experiencing rapid, unplanned growth.

"The issues the ranch is facing are some of the same that Montana is facing," Leary said. "Small-town, main-street life might be fading away. There is an influx of money and second-home owners. There are fundamental similarities."

"We both live in beautiful parts of the world and suffer from unplanned, unchecked growth," Brittingham added. "We're experiencing the same kind of pain."

The MSU architecture and business students' work is divided into six main sections: cattle operations; the community (including employee issues and employee housing); education; conservation; timber; and energy and water.

The students have paired up into six teams of two people each -- one student from each college -- to work on those six sections, and they will then come together to integrate those sections into an overall plan. Students also have consulted with people in other entities at MSU, such as the College of Agriculture and the College of Engineering, when gathering information.

The six College of Business students involved with the project, who are undergraduates, are researching the feasibility of the plans and looking at implications of the various business proposals.

"The architecture students have developed land use ideas and the business students are analyzing the ideas to make sure they're financially viable," Leary said. "It's a lot to take on in a semester, particularly since the students have not really been given a budget."

Meanwhile, the graduate students working on the project from the School of Architecture have also been gathering information and working on developing a presentation with all the financial data and current and proposed mapping of the land.

"We have to find a way to make the information accessible, and easily accessible," Brittingham said. "The students are giving (the information) shape, giving it all a form. They're making it seductive through visual means. They've collected a staggering amount of information, and we need to have some visual imagery to help people wrap their heads around it."

Students agreed that the project has been a huge undertaking, and they expressed enthusiasm for the work.

Jeff Ernst, an architecture student from Lewistown, has been working on conservation easements and conservation programs for the ranch. He said he has been investigating options for the ranch, such as offering economic incentives for proposals and putting parts of the ranch on the National Register of Historic Places.

Those sorts of steps can have a huge impact on the viability of the land, Ernst said.

"They can produce more than an economic profit," Ernst said. "There can be an educational profit for the community and the state of Hawaii."

Another option students are looking into includes turning a portion of the ranch into a university-like institute.

"The ranch could bring in specialists to study a variety of things," said architecture student Matthew Breest. "The idea is to use the workforce, to help families who want to create a sense of community."

In fact, Brittingham hopes that if the field institute is developed, there could be long-term opportunities for MSU students and researchers to be involved.

"It has been suggested that...we might have a field station out there through the Kohala Center, on the ranch," Brittingham said. "The project is so complex that multiple MSU schools might be involved. It would be an opportunity for an ongoing partnership. That's kind of the dream vision."

Regardless of any long-term opportunities, Leary and Brittingham both said the project has had incredible benefits.

"This has been a fantastic opportunity on many different levels," Leary said. "It's fantastic for College of Business students to work with School of Architecture students. It's fantastic for students to work on something so challenging and ambiguous...I'm particularly proud of the work our students are doing."

"It's been great for my students," Brittingham said. "I view it as one of the most demanding (projects) the School of Architecture has offered at the graduate level, with potentially some of the biggest benefits and payoffs."

Brittingham, Leary and several of the students are expected to return to the ranch next semester to present their research. In addition, the work will be on display during the School of Architecture's graduate reviews, which will take place in the lower gallery of Cheever Hall during finals week. The review, which is set for 1-5 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 17, is open to the public.

John Brittingham, (406) 994-3832 or; or Myleen Leary, (406) 994-6203 or