Hardpan restoration work at Mokio Preserve has been ongoing for six years. While there’s still a way to go, the area has already seen the return of the kioea, the first documented sighting of the bird in modern record. - Photos: Courtesy of Moloka‘i Land Trust

When William “Billy” Akutagawa hunted deer in Mokio back in the 1970s, he didn’t realize what else the land had to offer, aside from a pasture for Molokaʻi’s grazing cattle.

Now, as a founding member of the 11-year-old Molokaʻi Land Trust (MLT), Akutagawa wants today’s young people to be more familiar with their environment. “We want them to understand their island. What was it like before? How did Hawaiians survive? What kinds of plants were important to them? What fisheries were important to Native Hawaiians?”

MLT’s Mokio Preserve holds many clues to these questions, even after more than a century of use by grazing cattle and other ranging ungulates. Since receiving the 1,718-acre parcel from Molokaʻi Ranch, the land trust has cleared away invasive kiawe and lantana and seen native vegetation begin taking their place. Endangered ʻohai plants and endemic yellow-faced bees can once again be found in Mokio, and kioea have returned to nest on its cliffs.

The landscape restoration work will take generations, notes MLT Secretary Cheryl Corbiell, but it’s already making an impact. “We’ve actually been able to do acres and acres of true restoration,” from clearing kiawe to laying bales of pilipili grass onto the hardpan soil to give new plants a place to take root. “We’re discovering plants and seeds that have been sitting in the ground for 75 years, just waiting for the right conditions, then bingo, this little native plant that no one’s seen in 100 years is sitting there.”

Visiting researchers have been interested in how quickly insects have returned to the area, particularly the yellow-faced bees. “There were virtually no insects here but now there’s little bees that have shown up because now they have a habitat. And birds are showing up because they have food,” Corbiell said.

The land trust has an environmental focus, but it also has a cultural one ensuring the land can be accessed for subsistence uses, to gather medicinal plants or for cultural purposes by hula hālau and other practitioners. An ancient trail connecting the east and west ends of the island runs over and across the preserve. “We know for a fact that Hawaiians used the Mokio area all the way down to ʻĪloli to get their resources,” said Akutagawa.

Molokaʻi residents continue to gather resources there for personal use. “We allow people to go in and take ʻopihi out of that area. We allow them to access those areas to fish. A lot of them throw net for moi. They also do pole fishing for ulua,” he said. Hunting is also allowed, although not at the same time as other activities. Deer are a good source of protein but thinning the herds allows native plants to flourish more, Akutagawa said.

“We also know that Native Hawaiians use lāʻau lapaʻau,” he added. “If they want to, they can go down and harvest whatever native plants they need.” While some people have wanted to pick ʻalae to sell, that’s not allowed. “If you want to get ʻalae, get ʻalae for yourself, not to sell to the general public.”

Island culture is different from continental culture, Akutagawa explained. “You only have a finite number of resources and you have to maintain those resources. We’re very cognizant of the fact that there’s only 70 percent of our watershed left on Molokaʻi. The rest has been destroyed by ungulates, whether it’s deer, goats, pigs or cattle,” he said. “Instead of losing more, let’s try to save what we have.”

Although not part of the parcel from Molokaʻi Ranch, MLT also has a lease agreement to protect Puʻu Kaʻeo, a hill west of Mokio that includes an adze quarry and seasonal housing complex, with a heiau on one side. Adze from this quarry has been found throughout the islands, even in Honolulu Harbor. At Anapuka, where ancient Hawaiians built a stone wall, there’s another housing complex and koʻa, or fishing shrines, still containing broken coral and other offerings.

Other landowners have expressed interest in having MLT manage cultural sites on their properties, either by donation or management easement. MLT also has a land stewardship contract from The Nature Conservancy to do restoration work at Moʻomomi, right over the fence from Mokio.

While the Mokio Preserve requires the most care and attention, MLT’s first property was the 196.4-acre Kawaikapu Preserve on the eastern end of Molokaʻi. While Mokio faces drought, Kawaikapu has natural water sources, allowing plants to flourish. “Most of the time it’s green,” Akutagawa observed. The emphasis there is to remove invasive species and restore native ʻōhia, hāpuʻu, palaʻa fern and other rainforest vegetation. “There’s not as much management but a lot of inventory, a lot of research done on what native species are there,” Akutagawa added.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs was a major funder for Molokaʻi Land Trust in its early days, providing seed money for the nonprofit to rent an office and hire an executive director and field coordinator. Since then, the land trust has sought other grants and donations, and collects some revenue from rent.

The nonprofit remains largely volunteer-based, with valued interns from AmeriCorps and KUPU sharing the labor. In July, MLT held a groundbreaking for a new facility in Kualapuʻu that will allow it to bring its offices, baseyard and native plant nursery together.

Although there’s still a long road ahead, “Just starting means you do get some birds coming back, insects coming back, native plants once they have a little bit of shade, and of course birds move seeds and nature starts taking over,” Corbiell said.

“It’s amazing,” said Akutagawa. “If you don’t abuse it, it’s going to come back.