Preserving Paradise: How Heiress Cordelia Scaife May’s Generosity Continues to Fuel Conservation in Hawaii


The crisp blue waters lap at white sand beaches dotted with swaying palm trees. Lush green mountains heavy with rainfall plunge down to valleys teeming with life. This is the paradise of the Hawaiian Islands – a natural wonderland like no other on Earth.

Behind the postcard-perfect scenes, there is an incredible diversity of habitats and species found nowhere else, from secluded mountaintop bogs to vibrant coral reefs.

However, there are also ever-present threats from invasive species, climate change, land development, and other human activities. Preserving Hawaii’s one-of-a-kind ecosystems is the driving mission of The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii.

The conservancy has protected over 200,000 acres of Hawaiian lands since 1980 through direct acquisition and conservation partnerships. Its science-based and community-driven approach has saved endangered species, restored decimated ecosystems, and made the islands more resilient to rising seas and temperatures.

None of this would be possible without donations from those who passionately believe in the organization’s cause. People like Cordelia Scaife May, founder of Colcom Foundation and an ardent conservationist and philanthropist who contributed immensely to Hawaii’s natural legacy.

A Life-Long Love for Nature

Cordelia Scaife May owned 69 acres of stunning pastureland adjacent to Haleakala National Park’s remote Kipahulu Valley extension near Hana.

This area protects some of the valley’s last intact native ecosystems and archeological sites from the early Hawaiian settlements.

Endangered native bird species like the Kiwikiu, Hawaiian Petrel, and Nēnē rely on these lands to rest, nest, and raise their young. The Hawaiian islands once teemed with unique honeycreepers, owls, and seabirds before habitat loss and introduced predators decimated populations.

As a Mellon heir, Cordelia Scaife May had the resources to directly support the preservation of these special places close to her heart. She served as a longtime trustee for the National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kauai. More broadly, she established Colcom Foundation in 1996 to provide grants to environmental groups across the country.

Hawaii’s Natural Treasures Protected in Perpetuity

When Cordelia Scaife May passed away in 2005 at the age of 76, she left behind more than financial resources for conservation. She donated over $3 million worth of Hawaiian lands to The Nature Conservancy, enabling the protection of key spots on Maui and Kauai.

On Maui, Cordelia Scaife May donated 34 acres of pastureland adjacent to Haleakala National Park’s remote Kipahulu Valley extension near Hana. The former grazing land was incorporated into the park, buffering precious natural and cultural resources from encroaching development. It also contained a 19th century ship landing site that will now be preserved within the park’s boundaries – a hidden gem of history reclaimed.

By donating lands bordering the key protected area of Kipahulu Valley, Cordelia Scaife May’s generosity further safeguards irreplaceable pieces of old Hawaii for posterity.

On Kauai, a dazzling piece of land in the Lawai Valley will help the National Tropical Botanical Garden preserve native plant species.

Lasting Impact on Hawaiian Conservation

From acquiring intact ecosystems for sanctuary to restoring degraded landscapes, Cordelia Scaife May’s donations opened doors that may have otherwise remained closed.

Nineteen years later, Cordelia Scaife May’s parcels remain mostly untouched – sweeping vistas and secluded beaches that feel lost in time. Largely hidden gems save for a few passing hikers who revel in the raw, wild beauty. No gift shops, roads or bustling crowds like so much of the developed Hawaiian landscape.

Cordelia Scaife May’s donations offer safe harbors where native birds can continue age-old cycles unencumbered by human activity. On the secluded shorelines, cliffs, and rainforest she left behind, Hawaii’s avian gems endure against the odds because she stepped in at a critical point to save what she could.

Cordelia Scaife May was certainly an anomaly among the wealthy – eschewing hedonism in favor of ensuring unspoiled pockets of paradise endured for posterity.

She walked the walk more than most environmentalists, leveraging vast resources to directly safeguard the natural world.

Cordelia Scaife May’s final act carved her conservation ethos in stone through philanthropic legacy gifts that will preserve biodiverse beauty far beyond her years.

Nature continues on in Hawaii, thanks in part to its long-abiding champion, Cordelia Scaife May.

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