On a Monday morning in June 2003, a large crowd gathered on the lawn
surrounding the old buildings at the Ulupalakua Ranch. A “chicken skin”
ceremony and celebration followed, marking the collaboration of several
large landowners, unified in a partnership to reforest the upland,
leeward slopes of Haleakala with native trees.
Largely the vision of United States Geological Survey biologist Art
Medeiros, the Leeward Haleakala Watershed Restoration Partnership
(LHWRP) was thus born. Eight landowners, holding 43,715 acres
stretching from Kaupo to Makawao, signed a Memorandum of Understanding
to work together to restore native dryland forest ecosystems, which
have been reduced to less than five percent of their original range by
clearing, grazing and invasive species.
Four years later, replanting efforts are slow, yet steady. Regular
volunteer work trips are gradually restoring 10 and 20-acre fenced
exclosures at Auwahi, on the southwest rift zone of Haleakala, in the
4,000-foot elevation range. Much of the upland forests were cleared and
burned in the late 1800’s to make way for cattle grazing. Kikuyu grass
was imported in the 1940’s, and is now pervasive in many areas. The
black wattle tree is an aggressive pest in the Kula and Keokea regions.
Still, more than 50 native species have been identified in the
Auwahi region. Of those, six are listed as endangered, and five more
are species of concern.
But the vision of the LHWRP is much grander than just replanting
native species. Medeiros foresees native koa forests hosting a
diversity of other species, including the native birds which once
populated that region, but have retreated to the rainy windward slopes
where they are susceptible to mosquito-borne avian malaria. Beyond
establishing a biological preserve, koa restoration offers the benefits
of enhancing watershed resources and recharging the aquifer, and
linking Hawaiian culture and crafts with a sustainable silvaculture
(tree-growing) industry, providing jobs to support rural lifestyles and
But “undoing centuries of damage takes a while,” Medeiros says. Koa
is rapid growing, nitrogen fixing, but faces formidable obstacles.
Fencing is essential, as pigs, goats and axis deer eat koa saplings.
Acacia koa also faces a more insidious threat, fusarium oxysporum,
a vascular wilt fungus that can cause rapid death in trees of all
sizes. Testing is being done to find resistant strains and remedies for
the fusarium koa wilt.
It’s not just the scarcity, but also the beauty of koa’s wood grain
that has made it a prized commodity to furniture and instrument makers,
finish carpenters, sculptors, artisans and craftsmen, including those
shaping canoes and paddles. Koa’s distinctive, colorful grain brings
prices of up to $45 a board-foot.
That’s why Jitendra Russell began to research how to go about
milling and using the wood when he discovered dead and fallen koa trees
on his 10-acre property above Pi`iholo Ranch. Born in Great Britain,
Russell spent 20 years in Benares, India working with a master
instrument maker, eventually creating his own new instruments,
including the sitara—a synthesis of the guitar and the classical Indian
sitar. His love of woodworking sparked his interest in finding a use
for the koa on his land.
He learned that much of the koa/`ohi`a forest above Makawao was cut
and hauled to the Pi`iholo Mill, starting in the 1860’s. Much of the
wood went to fuel the boilers at the early sugar mills and to make
charcoal. By the early 1900’s, the land was almost totally depleted of
the majestic `ohi`a and koa trees.
Following several leads, Russell eventually tracked down equipment
sitting unused on a Maliko gulch property. He bought the entire lot,
including a mill saw, drying kiln, grappling hooks and chains. Now
licensed and bonded as Eco Maui Koa, Russell has a spacious workshop
under a soaring, tarpaulin-covered log lean-to in his forested gulch
mauka of Pi`iholo Hill.
In the midst of his workshop, a treasure trove of polished and
unfinished hardwoods, Russell can relate the origin of nearly every
piece of wood. His thick silver hair pulled back in a ponytail, he
speaks animatedly about rescuing wood that otherwise would have been
headed for the Maui landfill.
“They refer to me as the ‘Tree recycling guy’ now,” Russell says. “I
was driving by Pu`unene when they were taking down some of those old
monkeypod trees, and I asked them what would happen to all the wood.
Later that day I got a hold of two trucks and hauled as much as I
could. It’s beautiful wood, see here?”
Last July and August, I saw Russell many mornings at Baldwin Beach
Park, as we both sipped our coffee and watched the seasonal erosion
claim several towering ironwood trees on the beachfront. Eventually,
two stately false kamani (Indian almond) trees perhaps 70 years old
were undermined and toppled into the surf. When talk of replanting them
was deemed to have little chance of success, Russell asked the tree
contractors hired by the County of Maui if he could save them hauling
and disposal costs. They obliged, and he went to work trucking the
kamani and ironwood logs up to his mill.
Russell offers hardwood slabs by the board foot, and also crafts
benches, tables, doors, bowls, and other pieces. He uses no screws or
nails in fastening his work. He has earned the respect of local
craftsmen, and even state enforcement officers.
A while back, Department of Land and Natural Resource personnel paid
him a visit. They were responding to a complaint that he was harvesting
koa off state lands. He walked his acreage with them, showing them a
map of his property, as well as his operation. They left understanding
that he was working hard, earning a living off his land, without
harming the natural resources in the adjacent state forest reserve.
Later one of the men called Russell back to alert him of potential
grant applications to assist his ventures.
Russell plants 10 koa seedlings for each one he harvests. With an
abundance of acidic eucalyptus, and invasive strawberry guava, the
seedlings need some help. He says it’s important to plant them in the
mulch from around the stumps of decaying or dead koa trees, their
In a small way, the energy and ingenuity of Jitendra Russell’s Eco
Maui Koa business serves as a visible example of the viability of local
ag-forestry. This small scale, local effort has avoided the pitfalls of
20,000 acres of former Hamakua sugar lands on the Big Island, now
planted in eucalyptus.
A $30 million processing mill ran into financing difficulty and was
never built. The wood was intended for chipping, but also could have
been used for plywood and veneer. Now, it is being considered as
biomass feedstock for ethanol production. Presently, the straight rows
of mono-cropped trees continue to reach skyward, while the promise of
up to four hundred jobs created is on hold.
Back on that morning in June, it seems that the Leeward Haleakala
Watershed Restoration Partnership effort was off to a much more
auspicious beginning. Kaleikoa Ka`eo chanted portions of the Kumulipo,
or Hawaiian creation chant, relating the birth of the plants and the
animals in the koa forest. Soon after, a rare morning rain graced the
event, to the delight of those gathered at Ulupalakua Ranch.
“The rain today is a blessing,” state Senator J. Kalani English said
in a Haleakala Times article by Jan Welda Fleetham. “[A]s the chants
were being invoked, the clouds gathered and a light rain began to fall.
It is an affirmation from the ancestors, that this is the right thing
to be doing.” MTW