Sound Investment (VIDEO)

Haleakala Ranch goes out on a limb to conserve native forest — by harvesting trees to transform into guitars.

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planting koa trees
Reforestation requires grit of a higher order. Here, Haleakala Ranch land manager Jordan Jokiel hauls koa seedlings to a planting site. Inset: This thirty-year-old koa is typical of the trees being culled and sold — none from the wild, endemic forest.

Yes, said the ranch. Taylor and McMinn have formed a partnership called Paniolo Tonewoods (“paniolo” refers to Hawai‘i’s original cowboys and their innovative guitar stylings), and are working with the ranch and with the cofounders of Native Nursery in Kula. Ethan Romanchak and Jonathan Keyser started growing endemic Hawaiian plants in 2003 on four leased acres. Their neatly framed growing benches are loaded with, among other species, row upon row of red-hued koa seedlings in dibble tubes, all from Maui-gathered seeds and destined for rooting on the ranch. In a single recent day, the nurserymen and ranch workers planted 1,100 seedlings that will become three acres of new forest. Jokiel says, “We’re going to keep planting ten to fifteen acres every year.” The ranch has no plans to stop.

Koa from Haleakala Ranch’s planted groves.

Barbed-wire fencing is critical for the operation. Cattle — and invasive axis deer — love koa, and over the decades have chewed many thousands of forested acres into pastureland. It’s worth asking why any ranching business would want to reverse that trend. Yet Haleakala Ranch owners, who are many and share a deeply rooted Maui history, favor the forests and the conservation of unspoiled lands. Evidence of this is their hiring of Jokiel and of the ranch’s vice president, Scott Meidell. Both men have worked in wilderness preservation and feel an ethical responsibility for their 30,000 acres of East Maui. Also, they care about terrain-wide soil health — koa forests pull rain out of the mists, build soil tilth and fertility, and help the ranch fight its number-one menace, gorse. Gorse is an invasive, land-choking, thorn-bristling shrub that could blanket the upper mountain unless Haleakala Ranch fights it. (Jokiel says that a ranch with gorse is like a boat with a hole in its hull — “You can’t ignore the problem or else you’ll drown.”) But gorse struggles when it tries to grow in koa groves.

Bob Taylor, Koa guitars
Bob Taylor holds a guitar of twenty-year-old koa in his left hand. (The other is toon, an introduced member of the mahogany family.)

Koa is good for the ranch.

And now koa, managed, can provide revenue. “Paniolo Tonewoods is one facet of a large program that involves the reintroduction of koa, on a large scale, to our heritage lands,” says Meidell. When Taylor and McMinn showed up, they gave the ranch “a very workable financial model” for doing the right thing — a way to afford the tremendous cost in land and labor for reforestation. “This is really an exciting opportunity,” says Meidell. And besides, “There’s something aesthetically right” about turning this Maui wood into beautiful musical instruments.

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