Magazine article American Forests

The Mother of the Rainforest: Careful Restoration Is Bringing Koa Trees, Native Birds and Authenticity Back to a Hawaiian Rainforest

Magazine article American Forests

The Mother of the Rainforest: Careful Restoration Is Bringing Koa Trees, Native Birds and Authenticity Back to a Hawaiian Rainforest

Article excerpt

It is, perhaps, the things you don't know about Hawaii that are as important as the things you do. Orchids and pineapples don't belong here. Neither do the wild pigs that are tearing up the rainforest.

To find the real Hawaii you must go to places like Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge, tucked away on the windward slope of Mauna Kea and blanketed by a mist that shrouds its dense thicket of koa and 'ohi' a trees in shades of gray.

This 33,000-acre refuge was set aside in 1985 as a haven for the islands' tropical and endangered native birds, and flashes of brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows are visible particularly on clear, bright mornings.

Settlers have brought many changes to the Hawaiian Islands, beginning with the degradation of the native lowlands when the Polynesians arrived more than 1,000 years ago. In the late 1700s cattle, goats, and European pigs were released into the forests; hundreds of additional plants, animals, and insects followed.

In fact, the most common lowland plants seen today are ginger and plumeria. Mongooses, cats, and rats have been introduced as well, all to the detriment of Hawaii's native habitat and species. Hakalau--like much of Hawaii--is slowly recovering from hundreds of years of degradation.

That's where Richard Wass comes in. Wass, refuge manager for Hakalau, is charged with protecting and restoring the refuge, getting it to look the way Hawaii looked before coming in contact with Western civilization.

Hawaii has been referred to as the endangered species capital of the world. "We're trying to change that," Wass says. "Knowing how organisms adapt to environments can be educational. Preserving these species has meaning and value for people all over the world."

Doing that, though, is easier said than done. The refuge promotes the recovery of endangered forest birds and their habitat by preventing further degradation of the native forest. Grazing by domestic cattle has been eliminated. Management units are fenced to exclude wild cattle and pigs. Feral animals are removed from the units by drives, hunting, and trapping. Alien plants are controlled by herbicides, hand grubbing, and fire.

"We've built 44 miles of fencing and removed more than 1,000 pigs and about 300 wild cattle," Wass says.

Eventually he'd like to fence in the whole refuge. That's because Hakalau is a haven not just for birds but for plants, trees, and animals. Of the six endangered plants found at the refuge, two share the name oha wai and one was never named by ancient Hawaiians. The endangered Hawaiian hoary bat also roosts there.

Its 47 bird species includes the bright yellow and black 'akiapola'au, the 'o'u (which has a yellow head), the 'io (dark brown and pale below with dark streaking or all brown), the koloa (resembles a dark female mallard), the 'alae ke'oke'o (grayish black with white bill), and the nene (gray-brown and black).

Seedlings and cuttings of native trees, shrubs, and ferns are propagated on the refuge and then planted in abandoned pasture and forest clearings to restore native habitat decimated by grazing cattle and overrun by alien grasses and weeds. Wass's staff has planted 225,000 native trees at Hakalau over the last 10 years.

Alien plants and animals are removed and the health of native plant and animal populations and their responses to management efforts are monitored. Research underway now will identify the factors responsible for the decline of native plants and animals and determine how best to reverse the downtrends.

So how best to preserve these species while improving the refuge? One way is by reestablishing native hardwoods, such as the Acacia koa, which AMERICAN FORESTS has helped plant in its Global ReLeaf Forest there. AMERICAN FORESTS' 5year planting at Hakalau yielded a mix of nearly 155,000 native trees, the vast majority of those koa, including the millionth tree planted under the Global ReLeaf Forests program. …

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