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Gould, R. K., N. M. Ardoin, U. Woodside, T. Satterfield, N. Hannahs, and G. C. Daily. 2014. The forest has a story: cultural ecosystem services in Kona, Hawai‘i. Ecology and Society 19(3): 55.

The forest has a story: cultural ecosystem services in Kona, Hawai‘i

1Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University, 2Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, Stanford University, 3Center for Conservation Biology, Stanford University, 4Graduate School of Education, Stanford University, 5Land Assets Division, Kamehameha Schools, 6Institute for Environment, Resources, and Sustainability, University of British Columbia, 7Department of Biology, Stanford University, 8Global Economic Dynamics and the Biosphere, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, 9Stockholm Resilience Centre, University of Stockholm


Understanding cultural dimensions of human/environment relationships is now widely seen as key to effective management, yet characterizing these dimensions remains a challenge. We report on an approach for considering the nonmaterial values associated with ecosystems, i.e., cultural ecosystem services. We applied the approach in Kona, Hawai‘i, using 30 semistructured interviews and 205 in-person surveys, striving to balance pragmatism and depth. We found spirituality, heritage, and identity-related values to be particularly salient, with expression of some of these values varying among respondents by ethnicity and duration of residence in Hawai‘i. Although people of various backgrounds reported strong spirituality and heritage-related values, Native Hawaiians rated heritage connections as deeper, and lifetime residents portrayed ecosystem-identity connections as more integral to their well-being than did people from other backgrounds. The approach also proved useful in identifying concerns not addressed in survey and interview prompts, including postcolonial issues, access to ecosystems, and relationships between people of different ethnic backgrounds. Although understanding these nonmaterial dimensions of human-ecosystem relationships can be complex, emerging techniques eliciting qualitative and quantitative data provide feasible ways of deepening that understanding.
Key words: environmental decision making; heritage; identity; mixed methods; semistructured interviews; spirituality; surveys; values


Understanding how people value and use ecosystems is essential for efforts to make social-ecological systems sustainable (Kittinger et al. 2012). In particular, many argue that the intangible connections people have with the nonhuman world form the basis of a deep and respectful relationship necessary for sustainability (Clayton and Opotow 2003). Key challenges are how to characterize nonmaterial values related to ecosystems and integrate them into decision-making processes (Satz et al. 2013). We attempted to address the first of these challenges through a study focused on a specific ecosystem in Kona, Hawai‘i, with the guiding question: What are the meanings and values of the forest to residents of Kona?

Nonmaterial values are relevant to many, if not most, land-use planning processes (Satterfield et al. 2013). Although the frame of ecosystem services is increasingly used in decision making (U.S. EPA Science Advisory Board 2009), cultural ecosystem services (CES), the focus of this study, remain infrequently studied and poorly understood, especially in comparison with more tangible ecosystem services (ES) such as water purification and climate stabilization (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005). CES are defined as an ecosystem’s contributions to the nonmaterial benefits that people derive from human-ecological relations (Chan et al. 2011). Our CES analysis is distinguished from an ES analysis more broadly by its focus on the nonmaterial aspects of human-nature relationships.

CES are often identified as important in ES analysis, but methods for characterizing them remain poorly developed (Schaich et al. 2010). Consider, for example, spirituality. Many people feel a spiritual connection with the nonhuman world (Taylor 2009a) and many religions relate to ecosystems in complex ways (Tucker and Grim 2001, Kellert and Farnham 2002). However, the idea of measuring that connection in ways analogous to measuring biophysical services such as water quality or carbon sequestration is, to many scholars, inappropriate (Meskell 2012) or offensive (McCauley 2006). Although we empathize with these concerns, we do not see these complications as insurmountable. They suggest instead the need to draw on past social research (Daniel et al. 2012) and develop creative, interdisciplinary approaches to characterizing these important values (Satz et al. 2013).

Of the few proposed typologies for CES, we used a suggested expansion of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment’s categories (Chan et al. 2012a). The typology we employed recognizes the importance of local context and collaboration with community members in the study area (Chan et al. 2012b). Paying attention to context and collaboration, we used mixed methods to address the following questions:

  1. Which intangible values related to ecosystems, specifically which CES, are particularly salient, i.e., discussed frequently and in diverse ways, for Kona residents?
  2. Do experiences of these values vary based on respondents’ ethnicity, gender, time of residence, age, and level of education? If so, how?


This study employed mixed methods to produce qualitative and quantitative data, designed so that the benefits and drawbacks of each method are complementary (Creswell and Clark 2007). Mixed methods are appropriate for “questions that call for real-life contextual understandings, multilevel perspectives, and cultural influences” (Creswell et al. 2011:4); all of these characteristics describe the questions in this study. We used a semistructured interpretive interview consisting of open-ended questions, combined with a survey consisting of mostly closed-ended items.

The interview included questions exploring respondents’ forest-related activities, perspectives on forest health and management, and forest-related values and meanings, which were loosely based on the conceptualization of CES we used (Chan et al. 2012a). Our semistructured interview format combined predefined questions with conversation-specific prompts, which encouraged respondents to use narrative and description to elaborate on the types of values sought (Patton 2002, Satterfield et al. 2013). We developed the interview protocol in collaboration with a multidisciplinary team (see Klain and Chan 2012 and Gould et al. 2014 for details). Appendix 1 provides the interview protocol.

The survey included closed-ended items regarding respondents’ use of, perspectives on, and values related to the forest. Respondents scored answers by using binary terms, i.e., yes/no, and by using quantitative rankings, either relative, e.g., “arrange these options from most to least desired,” or absolute, on a 1-to-5 scale. Research team members administered the surveys following a script. In some portions of survey administration, we also used hands-on and game-like interactions to facilitate respondent engagement (J. Puleston 2011, When we queried respondents about forest use, for example, we asked them to place cards labeled with various forest-related activities in one of three boxes labeled “Never done this,” “Done in the past year,” or “Done in the past month.”

The survey and interview teams included a university PhD student, three university undergraduates, and two university undergraduates. Undergraduate team members conducted surveys, and the PhD student conducted all but one of the semistructured interviews.

Participant selection

We surveyed and interviewed residents of Kona, Hawai‘i, during summer 2010. To reach a diversity of participants, in-person surveys were highly preferable to mail surveys. We used a convenience sample (Babbie 2009) because local experts indicated that visiting randomly selected houses would be extremely uncommon, and potentially culturally inappropriate, thus risking distorted findings.

For the surveys, we solicited participation from each passerby in public places, e.g., parks and grocery stores, throughout the day. We recruited people by asking, “Would you be willing to share your thoughts about mauka [upland] Kona?” Because Kona’s forests are primarily above ~800 meters in elevation, use of the term mauka alerted participants to general survey content while minimizing response bias. Our pilot study suggested that mentioning forests encouraged some people to decline participation because they “had nothing to say about forests.”

We surveyed only Kona residents, not tourists. Survey respondents (n = 205) completed the survey in an average of 23 minutes. Figure 1 provides details on our sample demographics and those reported in the U.S. Census. Post hoc analyses suggest that the sample was representative: Except for an under-representation of women (61% [n = 124] men, 39% [n = 80] women), the demographics of survey participants closely match the census demographics of the study area (U.S. Census Bureau 2010), and our data on nonrespondents exhibited no patterns that we anticipated would bias interpretation.

In addition to these surveys, we interviewed 30 Kona residents. Interviews lasted from one-and-a-half to four hours. We purposefully selected individuals thought to possess a diversity of relationships with Hawai‘i’s forests. The goal of this selection approach based on divergent cases was to acquire a breadth of perspectives in a small sample size, rather than to obtain a statistically representative sample (Patton 2002). Table 1 provides details on the interview sample, which is diverse in terms of ethnicity, age, and gender.

Data analysis

We conducted interviews and surveys concurrently, with the goal of acquiring similar information in two distinct ways. This is one recommended format for mixed-methods research (Creswell and Clark 2007). Specifically, we used preliminary findings from interview data to structure analysis of survey data. We choose this approach because of the nature of our survey; survey items covered a breadth of topics, and we did not want to “cherry pick” survey data (Gilbert 2008). Thus, we used interview data to suggest CES that were particularly rich or informative and ran statistical analyses only on that small selection of survey items. Conclusions from these first two analytical steps then informed iterative exploration of the entire data set. We used a modified grounded theory, i.e., an inductive, approach, with a priori categories/codes coupled with prominent emergent categories/codes (Pickett et al. 1999, Maxwell 2005).

Interview analysis

We transcribed interviews verbatim and coded them using the qualitative software NVivo 10 (QSR International, We categorized the transcripts based on themes (Maxwell 2005), targeting the particular CES of interest, e.g., education, heritage, but also remaining open to emerging themes and patterns. The research team developed codes through an iterative process. We coded with a hierarchical structure, developing 268 themes that were grouped into 33 parent themes. An example of a parent theme was threats; two subthemes within threats were pollution and development. We emphasize that the categories stemmed from our coding into these bins, rather than absolute, pre-existing categories in the data.

Survey analysis

We analyzed survey data using the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences, version 21 (IBM 2012). We measured most CES constructs, e.g., spirituality, using one item and statistically analyzed single survey items. Although this one-item approach is less robust than measuring a single concept with multiple questions, it was necessary to allow us to cover all desired topics and avoid respondent burnout. To explore differences based on respondent background, we analyzed respondent groups along four dimensions of interest: age, ethnicity, level of education, and residence time. Appendix 2 provides details on how we divided the sample. We used nonparametric Wilcoxon-Mann Whitney tests (Mann and Whitney 1947) to assess whether observed differences in responses between groups were significant. We tested three questions, spirituality, heritage, and identity, along these four dimensions of respondent background, for a total of 12 tests. With a 95% confidence level (P = 0.05), the Bonferroni correction, which accounts for the testing of multiple relationships (Samuels and Witmer 2003), dictated that P values < 0.004 were significant. We report P values before the Bonferroni correction (Nakagawa 2004), but label as significant only those that fell within the corrected Bonferroni range (Fig. 2).

Reporting back

To help ensure that our work was productive and cooperative (Shirk et al. 2012) and to make it more visible to local decision makers, we shared our study findings with the community in a locally resonant manner. The lead researcher worked with a local hula school, Hālau o ka Hāliko, to develop a show that included original performances of hula (Hawaiian dance/spiritual ceremony in which many movements mimic elements of nature), chanting, and music based on study findings. Appendix 3 and the Research Speaks website ( provide details, including photographs and video, of the performance.


Salient values and respondent background

In our interviews, respondents were free to discuss topics they felt were relevant to human-nature relationships. We identified values as particularly salient in Kona based on relative prevalence and inter-respondent variation of interviewee responses. The following analysis combines results from surveys and interviews, with a focus on three CES: spirituality, heritage, and identity. The need for brevity dictated a focus on three CES if we were to do justice to the depth of our data. Thus, we focused on spirituality and heritage because they stood out as the most often-discussed CES (Table 2). Of the two next-most-discussed CES, bequest and identity, striking variation in respondents’ discussions of identity led us to more deeply analyze this topic; bequest was discussed more similarly by respondents. We used identity as an example of a CES that may vary substantially among individuals.


Spirituality was mentioned by every interviewee. There were a total of 393 mentions across all interviewees, with an average of 13 mentions per interviewee. For the survey’s spirituality item, “I have a spiritual connection with the forest,” differences between respondents of different background were not significant when the Bonferroni correction was applied (Fig. 2).

Interview data on spiritual relationships with ecosystems did not demonstrate patterns by ethnicity. All but four respondents replied in the affirmative to the question about spirituality, i.e., experiencing ecosystem-inspired feelings related to “entities larger than yourself.” Of these four, two were white women, relatively new arrivals, and two were Native Hawaiians, one woman and one man.

Table 3 demonstrates the diversity of spirituality subthemes addressed by respondents. One expression of spirituality, animism, the idea of the physical world as animated by a soul or spiritual/metaphysical properties, was mentioned by a majority of interviewees. Interviewees’ discussions of animism exhibited no strong patterns, but non-Native Hawaiians referred to the concept slightly more frequently than Native Hawaiians.

Many respondents also addressed the sacredness of ecosystems’ physical support of life. A lifetime resident of Japanese ancestry felt, for instance, “that the forest is a very spiritual place for a number of reasons, but one reason is that you know that the person [before you] to this land utilized the forest to survive, to protect themselves, in all aspects of life.” Touching on a similar theme, a Native Hawaiian woman shared that “... whether invoking ancient gods or revering the creator that we are taught in the new Word, Hawaiians maintain an active, dynamic, interactive relationship with deity, and what deity has provided for us, to sustain us.”

A long-time resident of European heritage spoke more broadly of the spiritual character of ecosystems’ abundance:

What I learned by study somewhat of the trees and nature, is the incredible bountiful nature of it ... nobody looks at an orange tree just pouring forth seeds galore, right? ... and you only need one seed to generate another tree ... I mean nature is so obvious that it’s a god because it’s just this endless pouring forth of life. I mean, it’s incredible.


Survey respondents who self-identified as Native Hawaiian reported higher levels of agreement with the statement: “There are places in the forest that remind you of past events that are important to both you and your community” (P < 0.0005; Fig. 2). This result remained significant after the Bonferroni correction. We found that interview respondents mentioned heritage with essentially the same high frequency as they did spirituality. Heritage was mentioned in every interview for a total of 385 times among all respondents. Table 4 shows the different aspects, or subthemes, of heritage that interviewees discussed.

Although people of all ethnicities talked both frequently and infrequently about heritage, those who mentioned heritage with exceptional frequency (≥18 mentions) were all Native Hawaiian (Fig. 3). Native Hawaiian respondents were more likely to discuss heritage in personal terms, whereas respondents of other ethnicities often reflected on the importance of ecosystems for Native Hawaiian heritage-based values, even if they did not feel as personally involved as they observed Native Hawaiians to be. For instance, one Native Hawaiian respondent in his fifties described how he has:

always been interested in Hawaiian issues and Hawaiian lands ... and now [in my current occupation] I get to use it on a regular basis, and it’s kind of neat that all those years of studying this stuff is not a total waste [laughs]. It never, never was a waste because it helped me form my own identity but ... it’s kinda cool that I can ... share it.

Alternatively, a white recent arrival in her fifties discussed her zeal for learning the heritage-based stories of the land:

I want to go through the whole story and walk the land with the story. There’s a story ... in all the land. You just don’t always know what it is, and it’s great when you start hearing these different stories, and you can go and walk that area and get a sense of what it was about. ... So it makes you want to protect and share it.


Although Native Hawaiian respondents reported, on average, higher levels of agreement with the identity survey item “I identify strongly with the Hawaiian forest” than other ethnicities, the difference was not significant after the Bonferroni correction (Fig. 2).

In interviews, the concept of identity as connected to ecosystems seemed to resonate more often, and more deeply, with kama‘âina, translated as “child of the land,” indicating someone of any ethnicity born in Hawai‘i, than with more recent arrivals. When people were speaking of identity, interview responses clustered more by length of residence than by ethnicity; people who had lived in Hawai‘i their entire lives spoke of identity in similar ways regardless of ethnicity.

Kama‘âina frequently discussed how the islands’ ecosystems are intertwined with conceptions of identity and self-esteem, personally and collectively. One 72-year-old Hawaiian woman reflected on how:

... there’s great joy in being able to go [into a forest]. I can remember the smell, the sounds, and ... wow, I can ... just sit down with this fern, and put it together, and haku [weave] a lei [woven arrangement of vegetation], and feel beautiful again. Smell good. And feel good. You know? And just really owning who I am.

Another Hawaiian woman in her forties expressed related sentiments on a societal level. When asked how Hawaii’s ecosystems relate to identity, she explained how “understanding what it is to be Hawaiian” could address vexing concerns facing Kona’s youth. Her description integrally relates that understanding to Kona’s ecosystems:

Understanding what it is to be Hawaiian, what it is to have the aloha spirit. What aloha really means to us. As soon as our children understand these things, they can move forward positively. Understanding the values of our ocean, the cultural values of our mountains, the value of our traditions and our practices.

In addition to connecting identity to self-esteem, interviewees also addressed associations among identity, activities, and social relationships. For many respondents, identity was intertwined with cultural practices dependent on ecosystems, such as collecting food or lei making. Respondents discussed identity as affected by and formed through social interactions, which are in turn affected by and related to those cultural practices. Figure 4 conveys one way of categorizing conceptions of the relationships among identity, ecosystems, and practices; the quotations suggest the role social relations can play.

Intermingling of spirituality, heritage, and identity

As evidenced by quotes provided, respondents’ discussions of spirituality, heritage, and identity often overlapped. Figure 5 shows comments coded as all combinations of these three values.

Unanticipated issues

Interview and survey respondents frequently mentioned nonprompted themes. Table 2 demonstrates the frequency with which interviewees discussed the most common emerging themes. We elaborate on four themes that are particularly relevant to and informative for CES studies. We focused on these four themes because each suggests a unique consideration for future CES elicitation frameworks and analyses, perhaps more than other frequently mentioned emerging themes. These considerations are the interaction of CES with specific biophysical characteristics (native species); how socio-political context affects CES (access); how human diversity affects CES (ethnic diversity); and the importance of considering deep-seated emotional reactions to CES analysis (postcolonial issues). To demonstrate the relationships among our various results, Figure 6 presents the overlap between these four unprompted themes and our focal CES: spirituality, heritage, and identity.

Native species

In interviews, native species were the most commonly discussed nonprompted topic (Table 2). The majority of native species mentioned were plants (Fig. 7). Native species were most frequently discussed in conjunction with references to heritage and spirituality (Fig. 7).

Kama‘âina respondents tended to mention native species more frequently than more recent arrivals (Fig. 8). These mentions often referred to spirituality, heritage, and/or identity. Spirituality, for example, infused one 45-year-old Native Hawaiian man’s description of kiʻi (log carvings) for a heiau (temple):

We needed those [ʻōhiʻa (Meterosideros polymorpha)] logs for the temples. Because the function of the ʻōhiʻa is to collect water. ... [Similarly] the kiʻi can collect the energies. The kiʻi are like this [gets into high crouch]. They’re ready to spring. They’re ready to take action. They’re ready to go on the heiau.
A Hawaiian woman in her fifties described how a combination of heritage and biodiversity underlie her valuation of particular trees:
I don’t just value those lama trees [Diospyros sandwicensis] because of their genetic curiosity and particularity, although that’s really cool. I value them because I know that my grandmas sat in the shade of them. ...

As a final example, one Hawaiian woman in her thirties referred to identity in her description of how she was comforted that despite the influx of nonnative plants, natives are “still there.” She continued, “That gives me a sense of identity. ... I can breathe because I know that there’s something that still exists that is native. Like [sighs], OK. I’m OK. It’s still there.


Although no interview questions specifically inquired about notions related to access, 25 of 30 interviewees brought up the issue. Kona’s forests are mostly privately owned and access to them is heavily restricted. As one interviewee described it: “South Kona’s forests are basically inaccessible. ... Literally, you cannot get into them.” Although this comment was an exaggeration, interviewees of all backgrounds discussed limitations to access. In the survey, however, lack of access was less of a concern. The median rating for the statement, “In South Kona in particular, it is easy to access Native Hawaiian Forest when I want to,” was a 3, i.e., moderate, on a scale of 1 to 5. There were no differences based on ethnicity, residence time, age, or level of education.

Interviewees contemplated how access affects human relationships with the forest. One interviewee said: “So I think the forest is kind of invisible, and ... that fact that there’s no access to it, I think makes it invisible.” Similarly, a number of interviewees noted how limited access impeded the ability to experience CES:

Increased access would be helpful. ... There’d be more awareness of what’s going on, and also I think that the community would value the forest more if they were able to use it more.

Another interviewee noted that, although he advocated increased public access to Kona’s forests, “public access means different things to different people.” He continued, “That means that I can drive my four-wheel vehicle up there, or I can drive my all-terrain vehicle and alter the forest, right? That’s what a lot of people mean by ... public access. Well, I don’t want that. I don’t even want trails put in because that’s harmful.”

Ethnic diversity

Of 30 interviewees, 24 commented on differences between or relationships among ethnicities, particularly between Native and non-Native Hawaiians. One woman, a Native Hawaiian in her seventies, described an interaction with the kinolau of her family’s aumakua, the physical manifestation of a guardian ancestor, in a Hawaiian owl, the pueo (Asio flammeus sandwichensis). Experiences like her interaction, she says, encourage a person to “stop, and take a good look at your life, yourself, those around you. ... Are you right with yourself? If not, then you’re not being right with the others and all of that. The non-Hawaiians don’t look at that; they think it’s superstitious or silly or frivolous.”

Numerous other respondents of various backgrounds made similar statements about how perspectives of Native Hawaiians and non-Native Hawaiians might differ. A recently arrived white woman in her forties reflected:

I’m sure that there are white people that would respect the forest as much. But I think the Hawaiians definitely have a stronger connection to the forest. ... Perhaps because I’m an outsider, as much as I would want the forest to flourish, I don’t have that really special connection to it, but I feel the Hawaiians would.

Another recently arrived white woman in her fifties also expressed the idea of different views of land:

The problem is that Western people come in with their different views of things. ... They see land as private property; whatever they want to do with it, they can. Hawaiians don’t see things that way; they see it as they need to take care of their neighbor. You can’t just do anything with the land.

A number of interviewees discussed how many of the characteristics associated with Native Hawaiians, white people, or those of other ethnicities were not necessarily related to the koko, that is, the blood. One man in his forties, a lifelong resident of Kona, expressed this perspective:

On paper I am of Japanese ancestry. As far as my beliefs ... being born and raised here, being connected to the land and to the people, I have a lot of beliefs in the traditional Hawaiian ways. Taking care of the land, providing, and treating people well. ... I think that people that have those values, no matter ... where they’re from ... in spirit, they’re Hawaiians.

References to colonialism

Postcolonial issues, i.e., references to Hawai‘i in the aftermath of settler, missionary, or U.S. incursion on Hawaiian lands, though not included in the interview guide, were raised and discussed with gravity by 19 of 30 interviewees from a diversity of backgrounds. Native Hawaiians often spoke of these issues using explicit and highly personal references. One Native Hawaiian respondent in his thirties referenced the relationship between postcolonial tension, spirituality, heritage, and identity:

I am indigenous to Hawai‘i, and you’re going to tell me I cannot go and see my spiritual church of my government, of my people, for free? Oh, you guys own the beach now? Oh, it’s a national park? I don’t give a damn.

A Native Hawaiian woman in her seventies encapsulated concepts addressed by other interviewees:

Much of our land has been so misused: sold, swapped, traded out, for other things that they feel would be beneficial to the overall. And that’s always debatable ... and we’ve permitted it. We’ve allowed it to happen, because we didn’t know how to fight in this arena. We never had to fight over land. Land was always available for all to use. ... But, with societal changes, now you have to abide by different rules. ... These changes over scores of years have caused many a conflict ... the pain, and the anxiety. ... Anger, frustration, how come, everybody else, old man, and not us? This is our home. How come?

One Native Hawaiian interviewee commented on postcolonial issues by referencing the 1990 movie Pretty Woman. She recalled the movie’s conclusion, when the male lead asks the female lead what she will do now that her “knight in shining armor” has rescued her. She responds that she will “rescue him right back.” The interviewee referred to that sentiment to express the current situation in Hawai‘i:

That’s ... one of my favorite lines. So, that’s the position that the Natives are in now. We keep getting rescued. And, you know, we’re being rescued—we got “rescued” by the missionaries, we got “rescued” by the entrepreneurs, now we’re being “rescued” by the environmentalists. And it’s like, “Yay, we get another chance, to rescue you right back!


Aspects of the nonmaterial needs and values humans associate with ecosystems, such as nature’s positive effects on mental health, seem somewhat universal (Bratman et al. 2012, Russell et al. 2013). Many nonmaterial values, however, are experienced differently by different people. In this study, we found that for people in Kona, spirituality, heritage, and identity were particularly salient categories of what can be called CES, despite how articulation and distribution of these categories vary across backgrounds. We also found that, when discussing ecosystems, respondents reflected repeatedly and deeply on related, nonprompted themes, including ecosystem access, ethnic diversity, and postcolonial tensions.

We aimed to characterize locally based and culturally mediated values for future incorporation into decision making. For research and management, variability in these values is a central concern and challenge; poor understanding of these values and their variability can exacerbate inequities and cripple conservation efforts (Borgerhoff-Mulder and Coppolillo 2005). Our results suggest that understanding CES can help address concerns about the insensitivity of conservation initiatives to human needs and values (Brown 2003), because the combination of qualitative and quantitative social data can improve understanding of complex context-specific issues (van Woerden et al. 2008).

Examples demonstrate the potential influence of CES-related data in decision contexts. Papahānaumokuākea is a cluster of small islands southwest of Hawai‘i. Nonmaterial values figured prominently in the decision to designate the area a U.S. National Marine Monument and UNESCO World Heritage Site (UNESCO 2010). In the United Kingdom, qualitative data from a series of focus groups substantially informed the UK National Ecosystem Assessment, a government initiative (Church et al. 2011). CES-related data are also influencing planning decisions in several engagements of the Natural Capital Project, including in Belize, Canada’s Vancouver Island, and Baoxing County, China (Ruckelshaus et al. 2013). We see opportunity to more systematically include CES as methods and approaches are refined and communicated to practitioners.

Many peer-reviewed empirical assessments of CES use quantitative data (e.g., Martín-López et al. 2009, Rees et al. 2010, Martín-López et al. 2012, Norton et al. 2012). The research described in this article adds to the CES dialogue by combining more quantitative approaches with narrative descriptions of values that are difficult to encapsulate using traditional quantitative metrics (Natural England 2009, Tengberg et al. 2012, Satterfield et al. 2013) and by opening the possibility for expressing unanticipated values. These two attributes may be particularly critical for incorporating the viewpoints of individuals or groups accustomed to storing and communicating information in nonquantitative formats such as oral histories, myths, or cultural landscapes (Smith 2005, Taylor 2009b, Meskell 2012).

Spirituality, heritage, and identity

The CES themes we discuss are all deeply complex; we cannot address all nuances here. Even the definition of spirituality is riddled with complications (Speck 2005). Although for many English speakers, spirituality has core meaning related to “an understanding of how life should be lived and an attempt to live that way” (Gottlieb 2012:5), the word’s additional trappings vary immensely. Our respondents discussed multiple forms of spirituality, including dark green religion/spiritual ecology (Taylor 2009a, Sponsel 2014), Christianity, and traditional Hawaiian spirituality, which interlinks with Native Hawaiian heritage (Kamakau 1991, Maly 2001, McGregor 2007).

Our results demonstrate that, although some CES vary within a given population (identity and heritage were notable in this regard), others may not; and critically, this variability is not always predictable based on widely held assumptions. Theory and past empirical work suggest, for example, that indigenous peoples’ spirituality is often more intricately connected to ecosystems than are other forms of spirituality, particularly traditional Western religions (White 1967, Coates et al. 2006, Nadasdy 2007, Berkes 2008). Recent work has shown, however, that spiritual feelings intertwined with nature are not limited to indigenous people (Gottlieb 2012). The sacredness of nature and nature’s processes has been discussed for years (e.g., Birch 1965) and variously termed ecospiritual (Coates et al. 2006), spiritual ecology (Sponsel 2007), and dark green religion (Taylor 2009a). Consistent with the literature, our findings indicate that people of diverse backgrounds feel strong spiritual connections to ecosystems.

Similarly, although some scholarship posits that animistic viewpoints are more commonly found among indigenous than nonindigenous populations (Nadasdy 2007), in our study, people of all backgrounds addressed animism unprompted. Native Hawaiians who discussed animism tended to mention it frequently, but a higher proportion of recent arrivals discussed the topic. Recent religious scholarship has similarly found that people of nonindigenous descent express animistic viewpoints (Harvey 2006, Taylor 2009a, Sponsel 2014).

Heritage, i.e., legacies from the past as they relate to Kona’s ecosystems, was the second leading theme in our study. Heritage is a complex contemporary political topic involving multiple relations between self and group, group and dominant other, and group and government, with all of these relations embedded within a system of “changing perspectives and identities” (Cheape et al. 2009:105). Both our survey and interview data suggest that cultural heritage is strongly linked to forest for many residents of Hawai‘i, particularly for Native Hawaiians. This result is consistent with the renewed respect for and celebration of Native Hawaiian heritage and culture in present-day Hawaiian society (Blackford 2004, McGregor 2007).

Understanding the relationships between Hawaiian ecosystems, Native Hawaiians today, and their heritage may be especially important for decision making. Material, aesthetic, and scientific discourses have dominated in the management of heritage (Baird 2012). One frontier of heritage studies centers on attention to intangible heritage, which may aid “understandings around natural and cultural patrimony” (Meskell 2012:35).

Identities are complex: all-encompassing (Wheaton 2011), dynamic (Kahn 2003), and multiple (Falk 2006, Kelty 2011). Our results touch on each of these characteristics. The relationship between identity and place is addressed in Western literature from two primary directions: nature as an element of overall identity formation (Proshansky et al. 1983, Twigger-Ross and Uzzell 1996) and identity as a component of place attachment, that is, a bond based on thoughts and emotions (Stedman 2002). Environmental identity studies refer to “nature” at varying scales, from a relatively abstract and generalized concept of nature (Schultz 2001, Clayton and Opotow 2003) to specific geographic locations (Williams and Vaske 2003).

Our work focused on the relationship between a person’s overall identity and a particular place, a combination uncommon in the literature. We found that lifelong residents of Kona had particularly strong identity-related connections to Kona’s ecosystems. Respondents’ discussions of identity, however, were not directly associated with duration of residence, but rather addressed nuanced ways in which Kona’s ecosystems interact with identity: as deeply integral to identity, as integral to identity and mediated by activity, and as relatively unconnected to identity. This finding has important, if difficult to operationalize, implications for socially conscious land management.

The values discussed herein interlink in multiple ways. In their relationships to ecosystems, identity and cultural heritage are often connected (Cheape et al. 2009, Baird 2012), as are heritage and spirituality (West and Brockington 2006) and spirituality and identity (Maly 2001). All three values can also be interrelated, as we and others have found (Berkes 2008). Our findings also provide evidence of the interrelatedness of nonmaterial and material ES (Chan et al. 2012a): Respondents repeatedly mentioned the spiritual power of nature’s life-sustaining characteristics (Berkes 2008). This point has obvious links to ecosystem services: Our respondents essentially described the sacredness of material ecosystem services. This finding relates to research demonstrating the centrality of the supernatural in some societies’ customary management regimes (e.g., Sasaoka and Laumonier 2012).

Unanticipated themes

We are aware and wary of the implications of categorizing myriad values within a particular framework, i.e., ecosystem services (Foucault 1973, Brosius 2010). Thus, we are particularly attentive to emerging concerns. In this analysis, we focus on access, ethnic diversity, and postcolonial stressors.

The prevalence of access-related discussions suggests an emergent area of concern and potential emphasis for future CES-related research: how availability of and access to ecosystems affect the potential for nonmaterial benefits from those systems. Land tenure and associated use rights have affected people’s relationships with land for millennia (Scott 1998); exclusion from ecosystems can dramatically erode ecosystem-associated material (Hall et al. 2011) and nonmaterial (Schein 2009) values. Largely because of these effects, access has been considered central to environmental management (Lockie 2013). In present-day Hawai‘i, issues of tenure and exclusion are a major concern (McGregor 1996, Herman 1999), and our results indicate that many people in Kona consider current access to the forest restricted. Some respondents referred to access as a right: a legal or moral claim. Others referred to it as a benefit or opportunity that is desirable but not fundamental. This diversity is consistent with discussions in the natural-resources literature around the critical distinction, in considerations of access, between rights and benefits (Ribot and Peluso 2003). Regardless of how they referred to it, access was clearly a concern for most respondents. Future CES studies may consider access as a mediator of CES.

A second emerging theme, relationships between people of different ethnicities, relates to the variability of CES within a given geographic population. In Kona, the dimensions most often associated with differences in the people-ecosystem relationship were ethnicity and length of residence. This point is connected to postcolonial issues in that the group with historic power have been newcomers and are ethnically different from the precolonial population.

Ethnicity tends to be a prevalent concern in Hawai‘i in both private and public life (Trask 1991); combined with interviewees’ unprompted discussions of ethnic diversity, this consideration led us to explore variations in CES along ethnic lines. Discussions of issues such as ethnic relations are complicated by numerous factors, among them that differences are perceived, rather than representing some absolute truth, and tend toward generalization (Operario and Fiske 2002). With respect to such complex, socially mediated issues, however, these perceived, context-laden views are probably a necessary format for representing these phenomena, and from some epistemological perspectives, the only accurate format (Brosius 2010).

In addition to the contextual factors of access and ethnic diversity, postcolonial concerns emerged as relevant to the analysis of nonmaterial values (Berkes 2004). In places where colonization and subsequent decolonization play a central role in sociocultural history, any exploration of the values associated with land is likely to raise issues of colonial history, justice, and ownership (West 2006). Hawai‘i’s vibrant, highly functioning society was taken over by colonizing powers in recent historical memory (Liliʻuokalani 1991, McCubbin and Marsella 2009); that takeover was associated with the control and commercialization of land and natural resources. Thus, it is not surprising that postcolonial discourse and impact emerged in this study as key elements of the human-ecosystem relationship. Postcolonial studies clearly establish that settings with colonial histories often have complex and painful power dynamics (Gilbert and Tompkins 1996, Saïd 2002) and that land can be a focus for these painful pasts (Meskell 2012).

Respondents addressed postcolonial concerns frequently and with great intensity, although we did not prompt for discussion of these sensitive issues. One respondent’s reference to the film Pretty Woman and its idea of “rescuing” offers insight into how postcolonial issues continually manifest in Kona and supports the notion that a fictional narrative may facilitate discussion of sensitive issues (Gould et al. 2010). The comment that Native Hawaiians will “rescue you right back” suggests that the Hawaiian people/culture have much to teach the rest of the world. A primary sentiment of this quote, that of the arrogance of self-proclaimed “saviors” or “helpers” from outside who have the goal of benefiting a place and its people (Trask and Hayslip 1999, Cole 2012), infused many interview and survey comments. Given the typical composition of research and conservation teams, special attention to this point may be in order, in the form of openness to critique and discussion, in-depth local participation, and consideration of diverse ways of knowing (Brosius 2010).

Limitations and future directions

Attempts to elicit CES in explicit terms make three assumptions: that these values exist; that they can be suitably articulated; and that people will express them honestly to researchers (Schultz and Tabanico 2007), especially outsiders. Although some scholars recommend implicit tests of these attitudes (Schultz and Tabanico 2007), such tests would not have served our purpose of understanding a diversity of values in terms relevant to respondents. They may, however, be appropriate at later stages of CES research and for analysis of particular values.

Given that this study used explicit questioning, our survey and interview responses were clearly sensitive to our list of predefined values (Foucault 1973, Brown 2005). We piloted numerous measures of complex, nuanced values using explicit survey items; addressing such abstract values in this format raises questions of face validity (Brown 2005). Our heritage results support the face validity of our survey items measuring those constructs. Our spirituality and identity results suggest that this survey construct requires further refinement. Our spirituality results suggest that this survey construct requires further refinement.

Our findings suggest that certain CES may lend themselves more readily to analysis by quantitative metrics, whereas others may be better characterized by discourse and discussion. Future work can refine mixed-methods approaches to elicit and understand particular values such as spirituality. With careful design and piloting, quantitative measures may be appropriate, allowing both positivistic and more interpretive or constructivist epistemologies to guide research (Sponsel 2007).

Our survey had two logistical limitations. First, because this study was exploratory, we addressed a large number of constructs using a single survey item rather than a multi-item construct (Babbie 2009). Second, we used a convenience sample, which precluded drawing conclusions about the larger population (Babbie 2009). We maintain, however, that this was the most socially appropriate and effective way to reach people in our study setting.

Data collection, analysis, and interpretation were affected in diverse and partly unknown ways by the varying levels of “inside-ness” of the researchers. That outsiders’ understanding of culture and setting differs from insiders’ perspectives has benefits and drawbacks (Smith 2005, Theroux 2012). Researchers were thus careful to consider reflexivity in their interactions (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, Alvesson and Sköldberg 2009).

Despite limitations, our findings offer insight into advances in ES theory and practice. They provide an example of CES organized into more specific categories than those proposed by the Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services (Haines-Young and Potschin 2013). Thus, our findings can inform continued efforts to refine and standardize the treatment of social and cultural dimensions of ES, including discussions of how the ES framework can account for the interdependent, i.e., not one-way producer-to-consumer, character of ecosystem-human relationships (von Heland and Folke 2014).


In many ways, land management requires balancing contrasting and competing interests (Brown 2005). Methods such as those tested in this study can refine distinctions among multiple constituencies and individuals. Consequently, they can provide vital input for deliberative decision making (Fishkin 2009, Gregory et al. 2012) and help to address the social equity, i.e., distributional, impacts of ES decisions (Wilson and Howarth 2002). One critical concern with any deliberative or participatory process relates to who is involved and influential, because certain segments of society are less likely to participate (Burch 1976). CES analyses, which seek to understand a diversity of perspectives, can provide quantitative and qualitative input for these decision-making contexts, while also helping guide who should be present to ensure representation of certain viewpoints. In this way, research and methods such as those described here offer a process for making visible a diversity of values. In many decision-making contexts, more explicit values may allow for more informed decisions, and possibly, more just ones.


Responses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a response, follow this link. To read responses already accepted, follow this link.


We are deeply grateful to our study participants, who graciously shared their time, energy, and stories. Kanani Enos and Shane Akoni Nelsen were instrumental in sharing results with the study community through performance (see We thank the U.S. National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis and our fellow members of the Cultural Ecosystem Services Working Group: P. Balvanera, X. Basurto, A. Bostrom, K. Chan, A. Guerry, B. Halpern, S. Klain, J. Levine, B. Norton, and J. Tam. For research support, we thank the Center for Conservation Biology, the Stanford School of Earth Sciences, the Winslow Foundation, and the Heinz Foundation.


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Address of Correspondent:
Rachelle K. Gould
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