The Women of Gunstock Ranch: A Paniolo Legacy

Green Magazine Hawaii

The women who run the North Shore ranch are the third generation to carry on its rich 45-year history of sustainable operations. Today, Gunstock Ranch is an award-winning destination for thousands of visitors each year.

Lilia Tollefsen & Kyndra Smith

Lilia Tollefsen & Kyndra Smith

In 1973, 8 years after his arrival in Hawaii from Arizona to serve as a State meat inspector, Max Smith saw opportunity in the former sugarcane lands along the North Shore of Oahu. The third-generation rancher initially managed several thousand acres of land on a month-to-month lease through the former James Campbell Estate. Gunstock Ranch was started on these lands.

The lease, now renewed in 25-year terms by landowner Hawaii Reserves, Inc., remains in the family through Max’s son, Greg Smith, and his wife Kyndra Smith. Max retired as Hawaii’s State veterinarian in 1994 and was inducted into the Paniolo Hall of Fame in 1999 after seven decades of ranching and award-winning turns in Hawaii’s rodeos and show arenas.

That rich paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) spirit is what inspires Gunstock’s operations today, says Kyndra. As the ranch’s CEO, she has overseen its growth as a popular destination for an array of North Shore activities, including a swim school and horseback tours. The ranch is home to more than 100 grass-fed cattle and 75 horses—45 of which provide horseback tours.

The culture and operations at Gunstock have been sustained through each generation of the ranch’s owners. Guests are able to experience Hawai‘i’s natural history and beauty as they journey in the paths of the paniolo. All those at Gunstock embody the culture of aloha for the land, animals and people that have been passed on since the ranch’s beginnings.

“After moving to the ranch, we started to see some unmet needs in the community, and my mantra is when you see needs, you go around filling them,” Kyndra says. “After teaching lifeguarding and swimming for nearly 20 years at Brigham Young University-Hawaii, I dreamed of doing a swim school here, and that’s really what kept us alive during those earlier years while we raised a family.”

Four of the five members of the ranch’s management team are women. COO Lilia Tollefsen joined Gunstock in 2011 after 15 years as a teacher. She says that the educational component of the ranch is an important part of what it offers to both residents and visitors. Part of this outreach includes Gunstock’s partnership with community organizations that provide 3,500 youth with low-cost, half-day field trips each summer, giving them the opportunity to experience a working ranch.

“The rewarding part is to watch them get off the bus and see and smell the ranch, and at the end, they are dirty and they are happy and not afraid of grass and dirt anymore,” Lilia says. Gunstock would eventually like to partner with the nearby BYU-Hawaii campus to provide hands-on academic opportunities for college-level students as well, she says. The ranch is home to more than 100 grass-fed cattle, and 75 horses – 45 of which provide horseback tours, and 30 that are boarded.

This spring, Gunstock partnered with the nonprofit Hawaiian Legacy Reforestation Initiative (HLRI) and Hawaiian Legacy Tours to provide guests with one-of-a-kind Hawaiian Legacy Tree planting opportunities via UTV, hiking and horseback in Oahu’s first Legacy Forest. The initial project will span more than 500 acres of land slated for permanent reforestation. The forest will support over 600,000 newly planted Legacy Trees and be home to numerous rare and endangered species. 

“This ahupua‘a was once part of a great coastal native habitat, and we are pleased to be working with Gunstock, Hawaii Reserves, Inc., and individual tree sponsors to help return this magnificent place to its former glory,” says Jeff Dunster, executive director of HLRI.  

“We are taking a more holistic approach to ranching,” Kyndra says. “We can do both ranching and reforestation at Gunstock and make a positive difference for the community and the land.”

The Hawaiian Legacy Forest at Gunstock Ranch will be the third forest of its kind in Hawaii. The second, a700-acre Legacy Forest on Kahua Ranch, announced in April 2017, will include dozens of endemic and native Hawaiian species over a contiguous mix of forest, marshland and fully vegetated volcanic soil on the western slopes of the Kohala Mountains. The original forest at Kukaiau Ranch along the Hamakua Coast spans over 400,000 endemic koa, ‘ōhi‘a, māmane, naio, ko‘oko‘olau, kūkaenēnē and ‘iliahi trees on almost 1,200 acres of former pastureland.

HLRI uses state-of-the-art radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology to record the growth, health, location and sponsorship details of each tree. Sponsors can track their Legacy Trees online through HLRI’s Tree Tracker program. HLRI and sustainable forestry company HLH are working to reforest 1.3 million trees across the state – one for each person in Hawaii.

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Joy Miyamoto