Auwahi Forest Restoration

I recently volunteered for the Leeward Haleakala Watershed Restoration Partnership. We traveled up the mountain to plant endemic Hawai’ian species in an exclosure at about 4,000 feet elevation in the Ahupua’a (watershed land division) of Auwahi, on the southern flank of mauna Haleakala. We planted A’ali’i (Dodonaea viscosa), Halapepe (Pleomele auwahiensis), and Ulei (Osteomeles anthyllidifolia). These are three species that have evolved in this watershed for thousands of years. The area is on the Ulupalakua cattle ranch, and has been grazed and highly disturbed by ungulates for over a hundred years. What is left of the once diverse native forests is a sad site, but with support from volunteers like myself and others, there is hope in reforesting this beautiful mountain slope.

Getting up to the exclosure from the highway, we had to take a 4 wheel drive vehicle up an incredibly bumpy, rocky, dirt road, ascending over 2,000 feet in elevation.

Auwahi is a dry and rugged wind blown landscape, stripped of it’s native vegetation and replaced with alien species of Acacia, shrubs and grasses. Once considered a museum forest, with only a few remaining rare native tree species.

In this photo you can see the difference between the fenced in native forest exclosure on the left side of the fence, and the barren, grazed landscape outside the fence on the right.

Gearing up for a full day of native forest restoration planting within the third exclosure called Auwahi-3 referred to as A-3.

Within the newer exclosure, are small patches of green which are plantings done by previous volunteer groups this year. When beginning to plant area, the invasive Kikuyu Grass is unfortunately completely sprayed with toxic herbacide, which I’ve been told is the only way to get rid of it quickly.

Once an area is officially sprayed, and the Kikuyu Grass is dead, volunteers like us come up and work as a team, some people using metal “O’o” bars to open up holes in the hard ground big enough for the next people to come by and plant dibble tube tree pots of a native plants in the puka (hole). In this case the majority of what we planted was A’ali’i, a pioneering shrub that shades out the understory enough to suppress any remaining weeds while holding space for other native seedling to germinate and sprout without resistance from alien species like the Kikuyu Grass, which is considered the main “enemy” of the forest restoration program in Auwahi.

A young volunteer with an O’o bar opening up many puka for me to plant A’ali’i keiki.

A young, rooted A’ali’i keiki about to be planted.

Here you can clearly see the line between the green area below that has yet to be sprayed with herbacide, and the area that we are planting that has already been sprayed. It is indeed highly unfortunate that such an environmental movement has chosen to use these terrible poisons to “heal” the ecosystem. I support this organizations vision of reforestation, but I do not support the use of chemical fertilized native plant stock, as well as the use of biocides to eradicate invasive species. I believe that such an act does more harm to the soil health and vitality than ungulates grazing. But for now, this is apparently what is working for them.

An A’ali’i planting about 2 years old.

Entering A-2, the second exclosure, about 23 acres, 6 years old. Here you can see the fence line between the native forest and the cattle range.

Walking underneath a thick overstory of A’ali’i, some as tall as 10 feet.

Standing among the only 3 Alani (Melicope reflexa) plants left on Earth. This is a highly endangered species, endemic to Auwahi.

A gulch in A-2 that appears to be an old collapsed lava tube, is now heavily dominated by native Hawai’ian dry land forest plants. The dry land forests in Hawai’i were said to be the most diverse ecosystems in the islands, even more so than the wet rainforests on the windward slopes. The forests were home to many rare native creatures as well, including the Honeycreeper birds that have since vacated due to habitat loss. In old times, Hawai’ians would come to the forest to gather materials for tools, fiber, medicine, dye, and timber. Hiking in A-2 is like a step back in time. Hopefully these ancient forests will be rejuvenated more now that humans have decided to help them flourish. I have read and heard that the leeward valleys and gulches once flowed perennially with fresh spring water from high up the mountain, making it a very habitable environment for ancient Hawai’ians and early settlers. Perhaps we will see this sight once more in my lifetime…

A volunteer standing in a 6 year old A’ali’i forest, among a few rare and beautiful Halapepe.

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