When the first Hawaiians glided their wa‘a (canoes) onto the shores of leeward Haleakalā, they beheld one of the tallest and most diverse forests in Oceania. They could not have fathomed that in the next 1500 years, these koa (Acacia koa) forests would become so degraded that they would be scarcely recognizable, in some areas having disappeared without evidence they ever existed. Not only would the great 100-foot tall trees have gone but, in most areas, every other species of understory shrub, fern, and moss as well. Along with them the birds would also disappear, from the largest of geese to the smallest of sweet-singing songbirds.
Currently on leeward Haleakalā, less than 10% of the original forests remain. Even these remnants, often in tatters, have been invaded by European and African grasses in their now well-lit understories. The disappearance of majestic forests has triggered the loss of 5-8 feet of topsoil in some areas, leaf litter and forest duff. Former State of Hawai’i Head Forester Michael Buck once called the barren, red soil landscapes of Nu’u and Nakula on south Haleakalā “Hawai‘i’s biggest embarrassment.”
Despite this degradation, the region is a near-ideal candidate for restoration due to the absence of shade-adapted forest weeds and characteristics of the dominant canopy tree species (koa). When protected from ungulates, koa’s quick growth rate (0.6m/yr), nitrogen-fixing abilities, and spontaneous regeneration from seed all contribute to its lead role in the restoration of the leeward Haleakalā watershed.
The Leeward Haleakalā Watershed Restoration Partnership (LHWRP) is a coalition formed in June 2003, by 11 private and public landowners and supporting agencies. The 43,175-acre partnership’s goal is to restore koa forests on Haleakalā from Makawao through ‘Ulupalakua to Kaupō between 3,500 and 6,500 feet elevation.
Four primary benefits can be expected from native forest restoration:
- increased water quantity and quality
- conservation of unique, endemic plants and animals
- perpetuation of important Hawaiian cultural resources
- diversification of Maui’s rural economy