Irene Bowie – Superferry Killer Has Clout

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By Susan Halas

Irene Bowie, executive director of Maui Tomorrow. Photo by Susan Halas.

Irene Bowie has always paddled and surfed and advocated for the ocean.

But her reputation took a quantum leap when, as head of Maui Tomorrow, she sued over the Super Ferry and won. “As a water person I became concerned as growth started to be detrimental to the natural environment. At Maui Tomorrow we think there’s a better way to grow.

Bowie recalled, she became the executive director at Maui Tomorrow in April of 2007, “just as things were heating up.”

At that time, Maui Tomorrow, the Kahului Harbor Coalition and the Sierra Club represented by Maui attorney Isaac Hall were in the middle of a legal suit to oppose the process that allowed the controversial Super Ferry to run between Maui and Honolulu. They took the issue to court, saying the ferry failed to follow state environmental law. The groups that sued were not opposed to the ferry itself, but they did oppose short circuiting the normal review process.

The case was twice appealed to the Hawaii State Supreme Court.


“In the End We Prevailed.”

The 2009 court ruling overturned a state law that had been passed specifically to exempt the ferry from normal environmental review.  “For me it was trial by fire, like being thrown in the deep end of the pool.”

The Super Ferry decision meant “we were taken seriously,” she said. “The issue got state, national and international attention. There was a story in the Sunday New York Times. Reporters called us from as far away as Spain and New Zealand.”

As for how much it cost, Bowie said they got a good rate on legal fees and plenty of community support.

“I was encouraged by the number of people who made donations. The money came in from throughout Hawaii and out-of-state.”


Small is Beautiful

tiny office irene bowie

Maui Tomorrow has a tiny office and Bowie is their only full time employee. Susan Halas Photo.

Not bad for a private non-profit environmental advocacy organization with an annual budget of less than $250,000.

Bowie is Maui Tomorrow’s only full-time staffer. A few others work part-time. Their Wailuku office is a little more than 100 square feet. That’s its physical presence: One person and a little room. She estimates the organization has “about a thousand supporters.”  It’s small, but mighty. It is overseen by a board headed by Judith Michaels and Mark Sheehan.

Kahului Resident & Mauian since 1978

Bowie, 59, is a Kahului resident. She came to Maui from Southern California for the first time in 1969. In 1978 she moved to Maui full time.


Prior to taking the leadership post at Maui Tomorrow she’d held many jobs. She was a crew member for Sea Sport “when it was one of only two boats that cruised to Molokini.” By the early 80s she was working for Ocean Activities Center. “That’s a long time ago.”

In 1980 Bowie was a founding member of Pacific Whale Foundation. She later served as its managing director from 2001 to 2005. “That experience made me much more aware of environmental risks to the ocean.”

“Pacific Whale experienced phenomenal growth,” she said. “It went from no employees in 1980 to over 100 employees and four large charter boats by 2001.”

By 2007 when she joined Maui Tomorrow, Bowie had been involved in different ways in “quite a few projects and I knew quite a few folks.”

After the Super Ferry, the organization turned its attention to a variety of other issues including alternative energy county-wide, the Maui Island Plan, Maui’s airports and harbors.

“Now we’re very involved in water issues. We’re pushing water reuse and favor less use of injection wells.”

Along those lines Maui Tomorrow and Hui O Na Wai Eha, together with Earth Justice have an appeal before the state Supreme Court over a recent court decision on the amount of water to be released from the Waikapu, Iao, Waiehu and Waiehu streams. They are facing HC&S in this matter. What the outcome will be is still uncertain.

If Persuasions Fails … Litigate

maui tomorrow accomplishments

This sign lists some of Maui Tomorrow's accomplishments. Susan Halas photo.

“The bottom line is people think we’re effective whether they like us or not. If persuasion fails we don’t hesitate to litigate.”

How’s she feeling?

“I’m not burned out yet. It’s a fascinating job, it is issue oriented, I see what’s going on. There’s plenty to do: phone calls, meetings, testimony and research. We work in coalition with other organizations and committees. For example on the water, the Maui Island Plan, sustainable, agriculture – we try to draw in informed people.”

Asked how she manages to keep an even keel in the midst of so much stress, she replied: “I rely on my Buddhist teachings to seek the middle way. I try not to approach things in an adversarial manner. I don’t like to think of us as being in opposition; we try to find common ground.

Of Course There Will Be Growth

“I am not anti-growth, and Maui Tomorrow is not anti-development. We have our critics. Even though we may not think alike, over the years a great deal of mutual respect has developed. Of course there will be growth. Let’s aim for growth that will serve us now and in future generations. We’re facing hard decisions; let’s choose wisely how we go forward.”

bumper stickers

The organization has been active in Save Makena. Susan Halas photo.





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