Pu‘u Makua lies at the top of the world.
This isn’t obvious when we arrive—as I jump out of research biologist Art Medeiro’s jeep—because the place where we park is different from where we eventually spend our hours digging holes and replanting native plants; still a half mile ahead by foot. I stretch and get my bearings, recovering from the bone-jarring ride into ‘Ulupalakua Ranch, the owner of which, the Erdman family, is who graciously gives Medeiros continual access. He and his crew are the Maui Restoration Group (MRG), a grant-funded organization that’s part of the Leeward Haleakala Watershed Restoration Partnership.
My buddy, Haleakala National Park biologist Chuck Chimera, and I talk story about MRG’s work while we amble along the trail, smoothed over by countless volunteers before us. He describes what this area looked like more than 200 years ago: Partly because of its leeward position, partly because invasive species weren’t here yet (such as deer, pigs, cattle, the list goes on), and partly because of . . . well, Mother Nature’s will, it was a forest populated by large native koa trees, whose understory was densely grown with native pohole, kikawaio, ka‘ape‘ape ferns.
This is Pu‘u Makua—but all I see around me are arid, overly sun-exposed cattle fields scattered with bushes and tumbleweed. Despite appearances, according to Medeiros Pu‘u Makua was once home to some of the tallest, and most diverse, koa forests in the state (way, way back before Hawai‘i was a state), and among the prized forests found anywhere in the Eastern Pacific.
Medeiros catches us, piping in, “John Price [of the Smithsonian] called this place the epicenter of extinction in Hawai’i. He looked at plant extinction and mapped it out, later stating that no community has fallen from such a high place as the koa forest of leeward Haleakala.”
Whoa. Hearing that, I understand—we’ve got our work cutout for us today.
MRG has been bringing volunteers up every-other Saturday for the past few years to “plant back the watershed,” says Medeiros, and more generally to support ecological restoration: the concept of aiding in the return of a native ecosystem by repopulating the forest, so that, for example, native bird species—those not yet extinct—can fly, feed, mate and nest once again in their natural habitat. (Some rare Hawaiian birds are now entirely restricted to captivity, and restoration of native forests like this may be the hope for them to fly free again.)
Both Medeiros and Chimera believe in the mutual benefits of ecological restoration. And it seems to be working: the fruit of MRG’s replanting efforts can be seen at Auwahi I, and are starting to show at Auwahi II, the two other nature preserves on ‘Ulupalakua Ranch. At Auwahi I “where once it was like standing on a ballfield, now people standing a few feet away can’t see each other because of all the dense growth,” Medeiros reflects, with a glimmer.
But what happened to the koa forests, you may ask? “Grasslands are largely not natural to Oceania,” Medeiros says. “Through mankind, ranches, and animals, grasslands have taken the place of trees. But cattle aren’t the problem. The problem is a lack of boundaries between the watershed and cattle land.”
Fencing keeps ‘Ulupalakua Ranch’s cattle from eating the newly planted koa and a‘ali‘i seedlings, which MRG purchases from a native plant farm in Kula. With roots sheltered in yellow tubing, these little natives are transported in large crates along with volunteers to the work sites, and then carefully planted in the ground. The reason for planting koa is obvious; a‘ali‘i serves as a skirt around the base of koa, creating moist, semi-shaded microhabitats that tend to be weed proof.
Medeiros and Chimera explain this to me—until they stop walking and ask the group of about 25 to circle up. Lost in thought, I look up . . . and am awe-struck: I find myself standing on an arching precipice, looking over an eroded cinder-cone rim at 180-degrees of natural grandeur. Grassy rugged terrain sweeps swiftly down to aquamarine channels; across, from left to right, Hawai‘i Island, Kaho‘olawe, Molokini, Lana‘i, and distant parts of Maui and Moloka‘i lope large and lazy in the blue-sky horizon, textured by puffy, cotton-ball clouds. You can even see the tops of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea.
It’s this part of Pu‘u Makua that lives in my memory.
Medeiros starts his orientation: “A couple of 100 years ago, you couldn’t look out and see blue. This area was all overgrown with thick, 150-foot native forests,” and he gestures towards what we’re all staring at. “If you had to pick one tree most important, biologically, to Hawai‘i, it is koa . . . [and] this is where you can permanently ‘plant’ yourself in part of Hawai‘i, through planting koa.”
Inspiring us with his words, albeit resident or visitor (we’re all simply volunteers today), we’re ready to get started—but not until another good friend of mine, MRG project coordinator Erica Vonallmen, explains our two jobs. Lifting a long, skinny black pole in the air, she shows us the o‘o, or digging stick, which the stronger folks will use to puncture six-inch-deep holes in the hillside.
On the hillside, Vonallmen demonstrates the second job: grabbing a trowel and koa seedling, she gently taps the bottom of the yellow tubing to release its roots. She pulls out the plant and carefully, but quickly, slides it into a hole made by an o‘o. Koa will not survive root exposure, so she packs the soil to seal them in and skirts the seedling with surrounding shrub.
Almost done but still one thing left: Vonallmen suggests we nurture the plant by telling it, (as she giggles), “Welcome home, we love you . . . now grow.” Medeiros spiritedly adds, “You can even sing to them.” I try. Then it’s on to the next one.
I dig and plant for hours—midday the group breaks for lunch and a catnap in the grass (“we figured out it’s a dangerous thing when the volunteers lay down . . . we lose them for an hour,” laughs Medeiros)—and it’s strange because the work never gets dull.
“When you’re doing something meaningful, you don’t look at it as work,” says Chimera. “Most people who do this get a lot out of it in return.”
There’s something fascinating about working outside, on the land, manually laboring towards the fulfillment of a larger goal, and larger gain for Maui. It’s exciting, even as I write this, to think that the baby koa and a‘ali‘i that I planted will someday grow into big trees—Mother Nature willing.
At the end of the day, I ask Medeiros why he thinks the average person chooses to spend a Saturday working at Pu‘u Makua. He takes a minute, then answers. “As many times as people come up here . . . as many times as we help the mountain . . . it ends up helping us in return. It’s a matter of starting to treat the planet as if we might actually want to stay.”
We planted close to 1,000 koa and a‘ali‘i—the most planted by volunteers in one day. This year MRG’s goal is to plant 30,000 at Pu‘u Makua. To help them do this, get involved by calling (808) 572-4471 and/or emailing email@example.com.