WASHINGTON, D.C. (June 26, 2014) — The U.S. Senate this week confirmed Esther Puakela Kia’aina to serve as Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Insular Areas.
“Esther will bring considerable expertise to the issues facing the U.S. territories and the freely associated states, and I am pleased the Senate has voted to confirm her to this important leadership post at the Interior Department,” said U.S. Sec. of the Interior Sally Jewell on Thursday. “Born in Guam to Native Hawaiian parents, Esther has strong connections to Pacific islands and extensive experience on Capitol Hill. She will be a valuable asset to this Department as we work with island leaders, the White House Interagency Group on Insular Areas, and partners across the federal government to further the islands’ social and economic progress.”
Kia’aina now leads the Department’s efforts to coordinate federal policy for Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa. She has the responsibility to administer and to oversee Federal assistance to the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Republic of Palau.
Kia’aina served previously as the First Deputy Director of the Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources. Appointed by Governor Neil Abercrombie to oversee the management of 1.3 million acres of public lands and near shore ocean resources in the State of Hawai’i, Kia’aina had worked on watershed management protection initiatives, threatened and endangered species protection, invasive species control, land and ocean preservation, and strengthening public-private and enforcement partnerships.
Prior to her current position, Kia’aina served as Chief Advocate for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which seeks to improve the conditions of Native Hawaiians. In that role, she was a senior-level manager responsible for overseeing a staff of 36 and a $1.4 million operating budget.
Kia’aina served for nearly two decades on Capitol Hill, as Chief of Staff to former U.S. Representatives Ed Case (D-Hawai’i) and Robert A. Underwood (D-Guam), and as Legislative Assistant to former U.S. Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawai’i). She was instrumental in the passage of numerous legislative initiatives impacting Native Hawaiians, U.S. territories and the freely associated states.
A graduate of the Kamehameha Schools in Honolulu, Kia’aina received a Juris Doctor degree from the George Washington University Law School in 1998 and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and International Relations from the University of Southern California in 1985. She also attended the Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Kia’aina replaces Acting Assistant Secretary for Insular Areas Eileen Sobeck, who has held the position since February 2013, and would return to her former position as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks.
“I want to thank Eileen for her leadership of the Office of Insular Affairs during this transition period and for her efforts to promote self-governance initiatives and economic empowerment strategies,” said Jewell.
The Secretary of the Interior has administrative responsibility for coordinating federal policy in the territories and is responsible for administering grant and budget assistance for three Freely Associated States under the Compacts of Free Association. The Assistant Secretary for Insular Areas and Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs (OIA) carry out these responsibilities on behalf of the Secretary.
In 2009, President Obama re-established the position of Assistant Secretary for Insular Areas for the first time since 1995. Obama also re-established the Interagency Group on Insular Areas (IGIA) by Executive Order 13537 on April 14, 2010. Co-chaired by the Secretary of the Interior and the Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, the IGIA, which includes representatives from key federal departments and agencies, consults regularly with Insular leaders, develops initiatives that address territorial needs and makes recommendations to the President for improving federal policies concerning Guam, American Samoa, the United States Virgin Islands, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.