Ka‘ūpūlehu Dryland Forest restores native ecosystems

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Protect, preserve and perpetuate

Running through dryland forests as a child, Yvonne Yarber Carter never imagined the native plants growing in the Wai‘anae mountains would become endangered.

Today Carter lives on Hawai‘i Island, where she has been working at Ka‘ūpūlehu Dryland Forest since 2002, first as a volunteer to learn more about the landscape, now as a member of the staff working to restore native plants. “This ecosystem is so at risk that it’s disappearing at an alarming rate,” she said.

According to Carter, studies indicate only 3 to 5 percent of native dryland forest remains in Hawai‘i, and of that only about 10 percent is considered healthy. Unfortunately, the appeal of the dryland forest environment is contributing to its disappearance. “If you were to look at a band of where the predominant dryland rain forest is, that’s where the people like to live. It’s really nice weather. It’s warm. That’s where all the houses are,” she said. On the other hand, “the trees that have roots are the ones that suffer.”

Ka‘ūpūlehu is one of the best examples of remnant dryland forest in Hawai‘i. There’s also beautiful forest in Maui, and of course in the Wai‘anae mountains Carter roamed as a child. “Any of the remnants are really important as far as diversity, what little is left.” As an example, she points to Ka‘ūpūlehu’s two hau hele ula – the only known to exist in the wild. “That was described in 1914 as a plant that should not disappear,” said Carter of the rare hibiscus.

People ask Carter’s advice on what native species they should plant, but too often after they’ve cleared out everything that was already there. “If they bulldoze plants – a whole community – it’s like they bulldoze a whole family. And what’s it going to do to replace one that doesn’t have its support system?” she asks.

However, she has faith in the resiliency of the ‘āina and the keiki whose laughter and singing fills the forest as the students help make trails, and get down in the dirt to help with planting and weeding. They say things like, “My parents would never believe I’m doing this. I can’t stand working in the yard,” Carter described. “It’s joyful. And it’s collective, and it’s amplified through time. It’s so important to have faith and imagination stretched to believe in all the possibilities.”

Lehua Alapai works with many of the students who visit Ka‘ūpūlehu, and also does outreach by going into classrooms and reporting data. “It’s to facilitate connection for people who can’t be here physically or the people who are here in the forest,” she explained. “It’s connection to this place that I love, and hopefully they love, too, by time they leave.”

When school groups visit Ka‘ūpūlehu, Alapai likes to take the keiki into the forest to sit in silence and connect to the ‘āina. “The world can go at a lightning fast pace, but you can come in here and slow down and be with your kūpuna and sit in tree time for a little bit and rejuvenate,” she said. In that calm, peaceful environment, she senses the resilience of the trees around her. “They’re surviving and that reminds me to never give up. That’s all I want for the people who come here, too,” said Alapai.

Alapai grew up in North and South Kona, and considers Ka‘ūpūlehu part of her homeland. But when she was growing up, young people were encouraged to leave. As a result, working in Ka‘ūpūlehu goes somewhat against her intuition, but there’s also a sense that it’s what she’s meant to do. “When I came through here, it felt like the lama trees and the lama forest and my kūpuna were calling me home. I can’t believe I get to live and work here and share that with people and reconnect to my ‘ohana, who of course have been here.”

Restoration technician Kekaulike Tomich’s parents helped establish a one-acre preserve that evolved into the Ka‘ūpūlehu restoration project. About 90 percent of Tomich’s job is weed management. “The said truth is that the new invasive species are better at propagation,” he said. “The area we’re working on right now was cleared probably about 20 years ago as a science project – there are still some of the plants they put in there, but most of it has been taken back by fountain grass.”

Keoki Apokolani Carter started out doing physical work when he and Aunty Yvonne first came to Ka‘ūpūlehu as volunteers, but now he focuses more on the spiritual part of the place. He resists calling himself a cultural practitioner and, in fact, would like some cultural practitioners to find substitutes for the endangered lā‘au they harvest for traditional uses

“Some people that come here and take and use these endangered plants act like they have the right because they have koko. I’m not for that because these lā‘au here are hundreds and maybe thousands of years old,” he said. “I would like people to find substitutes for what they need this particular lā‘au for and give the native, endangered and sometimes extinct lā‘au a chance to come back.”


Grantee spotlight

The Hawai‘i Forest Institute received a $172,262 community grant from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs for the “Aloha ‘āina, Aloha Ka‘ūpūlehu, Aloha Wao Lama project, which allows Ho‘ola Ka Makana‘ā o Ka‘ūpūlehu to continue sustainable management practices at Ka‘ūpūlehu dryland forest.

Prior to the grant, some of the Ka‘ūpūlehu team were using cobbled together computers, a dozen years out of date and unable to handle software upgrades. The grant allowed the hui to purchase new equipment and bring on an additional intern to ensure continuity of the restoration project.