LIHUE — On Thursday afternoon, a still shocked Marsha Erickson boarded a plane for Big Island.
After 27 years of living in Kokee State Park and working as executive director of Hui o Laka Kokee Museum, she claims museum Board of Trustee president Frank Hay offered her a choice — resign or be fired for cause.
“I was forced out, for reasons that I have not been apprised of,” she said. “They won’t even give me my three weeks vacation, which leaves me with $200 to my name.”
When asked if Erickson’s “retirement” — as it has been called — was her choice, Hay said personal matters are confidential between the organization and the employee.
“I cannot speak to your questions,” he said.
Erickson moved to Kauai in 1987 and has lived up at Kokee ever since. Before Hui o Laka, she worked as executive director of the Volcano Art Center on Big Island beginning in 1973.
On Thursday, she returned to her old stomping grounds on Big Island, which she points out is at the same elevation as Kokee.
“I’m going home,” she said. “Can you believe I’ve managed to live on a Hawaii mountain since 1973?”
A lot of what can be seen today in Kokee is the fruit of Erickson’s hard work, according to close friend Puna Dawson.
“It’s a surprise to see her come off that mountain,” she said.
Those who know her best say Erickson will leave behind nearly three decades of pure dedication.
“Marsha is a visionary,” said Roselle Bailey who, along with Erickson, co-founded the park’s annual Eo e Emalani i Alakai (Emalani) Festival. “She took Hui o Laka and the Kokee Museum forward into an interactive type of museum and into the 21st century.”
In addition to the festival, which celebrated 25 years in May and commemorates the 1871 journey of Queen Emma to the upland forest, Erickson started the Banana Poka Round-Up.
The Round-Up, which celebrates 25 years in May, is a forest education fair named after the Banana Poka vine, an invasive plant from South America.
Erickson was also pivotal in restoring the historic Kokee Civilian Conservation Corps Camp, abandoned in 1982 when Hurricane Iwa struck Kauai, and started the volunteer program Kokua Kokee, which sees 1,000 volunteers give 8,000 hours annually.
“She was somebody who had a lot of great ideas,” said Michelle Hookana of the museum, who worked closely with Erickson as her assistant for about 16 years. “She was very creative.”
Bailey said Erickson worked hard over the years to combat invasive species in the park, partnered with bird conservation groups and helped institute educational programs in local schools.
“She cares about people and she cares about the environment,” Bailey said.
Despite the unexpected change, Erickson said she is going to continue working on community and environmental issues.
“I’m open to all opportunities,” she said.
Hay said Erickson did a lot of good for the nonprofit, and that it would likely take six months for Hui o Laka to find a replacement.
“We have not chosen an executive director,” he said. “Actually, we haven’t even discussed what kind of executive director we want in the future.”