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Sam ‘Ohu Gon III
Senior Scientist & Cultural Advisor, The Nature Conservancy of Hawaiʻi
The bamboo is twenty feet tall overhead, blocking out the sun and casting a shadow on the trail that crawls down Puʻu ʻŌhiʻa, a hill named for a species of native tree almost entirely displaced by the giant invasive grass.
And then suddenly the bamboo gives way to native forest, and everything changes. Still air is replaced by a soothing trade wind. One invasive species gives way to a tantalizing abundance of trees, ferns, mosses and birds. The dense darkness is left behind for a gorgeous, expansive view of verdant mountains and lush valleys stretching all the way to the azure ocean on the opposite side of the island, 10 miles away.
Before entering the native forest, Sam ‘Ohu Gon III, the leader of this expedition, sets down the sapling he carries and dons his ceremonial garb. He recognizes an old friend - a 400-year-old ʻōhiʻa tree, its majestic grey trunk twisting to the sky, gnarled branches festooned with bright red pin-cushion flowers. His rich, soothing voice sings a chant requesting permission to enter this wao akua (sacred realm). He waits for a response from the universe. The wind changes. The green ʻamakihi bird chirps. And he knows in his naʻau (gut) that he is welcome. Picking up the young ʻōhiʻa sapling, Sam commences the final leg of his journey, guiding volunteers to the reforestation site where they will mālama (restore) the native forest.
How much work does it take to keep a native forest thriving in Hawaiʻi?
There are few places in Hawaiʻi where you don't have to do very much at all to keep it in a 100% native state. That is something that The Nature Conservancy does. That's where I work. We select those areas that are still in native forest and we recognize the threats that are beginning to degrade that forest, and we try to control those threats.
On the other side of things, you might have a piece of sugarcane land that was completely denuded and replaced with a single species, a crop that provides sugar. And then decide that now you want to return it to native forest again. And that would be a completely difficult and extremely expensive thing to do.
And somewhere in between is where you still have some native trees overhead, still some native plants under them, but they're being flooded out by non-native species. You know that if you give the natives a chance and you deal with the non-natives that are there, you can return it back to its original integrity. That’s where groups like the Mānoa Cliff Forest Restoration project come in - these dedicated folks take volunteers, like our visitors today and myself, and plant seedlings to restore those native forests.
It must take a long time for those seedlings to have an impact?
It took 250 years of introduced plants and disturbance of the land to convert native forest into what it is today. 25 years ago, there were no efforts of this sort to restore native forests. People didn't even know what the species were in native forests.
And now we see a trend of people growing native plants in their yards, native plants being placed even in urban landscapes, and of native plants being returned to the natural landscape like we saw today. We were able to just in one day, visit the nursery where many of these rare native plants are being grown, select some of them to place into proper habitat, go and hike into that area, remove the plants that were competing with them, and put those natives into the ground. And that's going to be a great thing to be able to go back every now and then to check on them and see them growing. I think everyone that participated in today's plantings had a feeling of accomplishment. They were actually surprised at how much was done in just a short amount of time when several hands are put to work in a place to improve it. To bring native richness back into an area is a wonderful way to give back to a place that really needs the help.
You think that maybe planting a seedling tree means that you're never going to see that tree grow. But, when you've been at a restoration site that is in a lush, wet, well-lit place, in 15 years you could be sitting in the shade of that tree and eating your lunch. And so you can actually see personally the results of your efforts, and that appeals to a lot of people.
I know that when I have come to restoration sites that I saw starting, say in the eighties, and you stand there on leaf litter from trees that were planted when you were 20 years younger. And now, they're towering over your head and you're standing in native forest again. It's a wonderful thing.
Is there one plant or tree that’s central to reforestation efforts?
ʻŌhiʻa lehua is our main watershed forest tree. And that's true of all of the main islands. That makes ʻōhiʻa ecologically really important as a watershed tree.
Imagine if there was no forest there at all and the rain fell upon the barren landscape. There would be erosion, the water would rush down the mountainside and send mud and sediments into the ocean and smother our coral reefs.
ʻŌhiʻa lehua forms a really dense beautiful canopy over most of the islands’ wettest areas. Essentially the ʻōhiʻa intercepts the world's moisture on the trade winds, and the clouds and the rain that falls on the ʻōhiʻa is captured by the leaves and by the mosses and ferns that grow on the trunks of the trees, and that water slowly trickles down onto the forest floor and into our underground water sources. That means that our islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by undrinkable saltwater, provide some of the purest, cleanest water in the world. And it's all due to the ʻōhiʻa in our wet forests.
And for an ecologist, it means that species is absolutely essential to the life of many of the species that live in the forest. Each ʻōhiʻa tree in a wetland forest will have dozens of different species of mosses and liverworts and ferns that grow upon it. And being so important biologically, ecologically, the ʻōhiʻa is also important culturally. In Hawaiʻi, metaphor is what it's all about. The last reigning king of the Hawaiian Islands, King Kalākaua, was compared to an ʻiʻiwi (scarlet Hawaiian honeycreeper) in the forest. The ʻiʻiwi drink the nectar of the ʻōhiʻa lehua. So the ʻiʻiwi and the lehua are the man and the woman, and this was the love song of his wife, Queen Kapiʻolani, for King Kalākaua. It's not, “you are like a bird in the forest.” Her song says that “you are the ʻiʻiwi in the uplands.”
The lehua blossom of the ʻōhiʻa tree also represents the wisdom of an expert, the blood of warriors on the battlefield, the fires of the volcano goddess Pele. It's an amazingly rich cultural milieu, all in one species, and that species is one of hundreds to be found in native ecosystems. A Hawaiian walking by themselves in native forests is not alone.