Rob Parsons

Maui Koa

Reforesting and recycling

By Rob Parsons
Published in Maui Time Weekly
April 12, 2007

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 economic diversification.

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 "family."

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."