The leeward slopes of Haleakala are about to get bombed. This Friday, Apr. 22–that would be Earth Day–the entire student body of Montessori School of Maui will participate in a campus-wide project to create 1,500 native seed bombs for the Leeward Haleakala Watershed Restoration Partnership (LHWRP).
“Every student’s hands–from our toddlers (18 months old) to 8th graders–will help shape the seed ball–basically a “meatball” of native seeds mixed into dry clay and a potting soil mix,” says Alison Grimes, the Development Director at Montessori School of Maui. The goal is to make upwards of 1,500 seed balls over the course of the day. They’ll be dried on campus over the weekend, then stored at LHWRP until their fall plantings. The seed ball method has proven effective in their mass planting efforts because the substrate helps hold moisture.”
The bombs will be used by LHWRP for their work in re-establishing forest in the Nu`u area.The leeward slopes of Haleakala have faced challenges with feral animals as well as invasive plant species and erosion, reducing its once vibrant forest to less than 10 percent of what it was two centuries ago.
“A lot of the area has eroded,” says Keahi Bustamente, the LHWRP director. “If you’ve driven out there you can see. At one time it was a vast, dense, wet forest–just like you may see driving to Hana on a clear day when you’re driving through Keanae and you look up and can see Ko`olau Gap. When you see the Koa and Ohia forest up there on the high slopes, that’s exactly what it was. But today on the leeward side, that’s nearly gone. Decades of non-native animals have decimated the forest. We’ve had to build fences to keep the animals out of the area that we’re trying to reforest. It’s really hard to guarantee we have all animals out of a fenced area because they can hide anywhere. But we can at least bring the numbers way down. Only then can the native species start to come back. There are thousands of goats on the leeward slopes, and they’re doing a lot of the damage. They chew everything. It’s really steep terrain.”
Keahi Bustamente and Montessori school garden director Scott Lacasse will be guiding the students on this inaugural program for LHWRP.
“All the students will be involved, divided up by age groups,” says Lacasse. “The LHWRP will be giving a presentation to begin the day, with Andrea Buckman starting off. Keahi Bustamente will be giving lessons on how to make the seed balls. Then all the materials will be going to the primary classes, the kids in the Sustainability Committee here on campus will be organizing and assisting. Then the lower elementary and upper elementary will be making balls and storing them on racks to dry. We will be keeping ours in the fridge over the summer and planting them as a lesson in the fall.”
The LHWRP has been collecting seeds like crazy for this Earth Day project.
“We’re starting at Montessori, but doing this with the hopes that we can get other schools involved,” says Bustamente. “We have done experiments with the seed bombs in the past, but this is the first time we’re making and getting thousands out there. We’ve ramped up our seed collection efforts to facilitate this. It takes tons of native seeds that we’ve collected from the area like Mamane, Koa, Aweoweo.”
I spoke with Bustamente as he collected Mamane seeds from the Kula Forest Reserve. These seeds will will be planted at the 6,000-foot elevation in Nu`u–some dropped from helicopter, some by hand. Some of the seed balls will remain in Makawao for the students to experiment with.
“We are going to keep a few seed balls here on campus, and do a little math,” says Lacasse. “The kids can see what propagates from the seeds. We can to some math lessons like percentages of how many seed dropped to how many germinated. They will be used for educational purposes here.”
Of course, the reforestation efforts will take some time.
“Koa is a lot faster growing than ohia,” says Bustamente. “Within 10 years, a Koa could be 20-plus feet in height, and already making seeds of its own. Ohia is a lot slower. I don’t know if you’ve seen some of the articles on Ohia that have come out recently, but we’ve just started to be able to date those Hawaiian trees. Ohia grows one millimeter in diameter a year. They’re estimating that some of these large Ohia trees are thousands of years old.”
Other challenges include changes in the original ecosystem. Some of the native pollinating birds and insects are already gone.
“For us to get back to the level of plant and animal diversity that we see in nicer parts of the leeward slopes like the Kahikinui area, it will take thousands of years,” Bustamente says. “But hopefully we’re still trying by then. Some of the more rare plants like the Haha are really specific to how they are pollinated. Really, the only birds that can pollinate these plants are the I’iwi with its long bill. A lot of the other birds with the long bills have gone extinct. It’s going to be a different forest in the future because of the pollinators–not just the birds, but the insects, too. The fences that go up protect these plants and the pollinators that depend on them. We, as the users of the water and the forest, we are dependent on them, too.”