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Auwahi: From Forest Failure to Restoration Success in 20 Years

Dr. Art Medeiros

‘Ulupalakua Ranch on Maui is best known for its winery and cowboy culture, but not its Hawaiian dry forest. A 20-year forest restoration project on Ranch lands is changing that. HPR’s Ku?uwehi Hiraishi has this story.

“It used to be that 20 years ago, that people would say Hawaiian dry forests, ‘So sad yeah?’” says Dr. Art Medeiros.

Credit Dr. Art Medeiros
Auwahi Forest circa 2005 shows the loss of native forest and large scale increases of the invasive African mat forming grass, kikuyu.

Maui biologist Dr. Art Medeiros has been a champion for restoring the dryland forests in Auwahi on the southern slopes of Haleakal? for over 30 years.

“Why should people be concerned about dry forests? They’re identified as one of the world’s biological hotspots just for the number of species that occur there and nowhere else,” says Medeiros,”Culturally it’s really special too. It’s the last stronghold for many Hawaiian trees that were super important to the early Hawaiians.”

Credit Dr. Art Medeiros
Healthy Hawaiian dryland forest.

Forests were the toolbox of native Hawaiians. Medeiros identified 50 native trees in Auwahi that were a source of fibers, dyes, and tools for ancient Hawaiians. For example…

“If you have the h?lei dye, it’s a certain kind of yellow like ??lena, it says you’re from the dry forest country,” says Medeiros, “If we lose the plants, to me, we use the colors and the perfumes and even the ability to make things out of the wood.”

Credit Dr. Art Medeiros
H?lei flower. The bark and root of the native h?lei tree is used to produce a yellow dye for kapa.

In the 1980s, less than 3 percent of the original dryland forest in Auwahi remained, much of it choked by invasive plant species.

Credit Dr. Art Medeiros
Auwahi dryforest circa 1960s.

“They were kind of a poster child for forest failure,” says Medeiros, “I called them a ?museum forest? – you know like a forest that was so rich like a museum. It wasn’t alive because there hadn’t been babies there in so many years.”

Planting of native shrubs help deter re-invasion of the restoration site by non-native species as well as recreate semi-shaded, moist microhabitats conducive for establishment of native tree seedlings.
Credit Dr. Art Medeiros

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In 1997, Medeiros set out to change that. He brought together stakeholders including ?Ulupalakua Ranch owner the Erdman ‘Ohana, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to take on the large-scale forest restoration in Auwahi.

Credit Dr. Art Medeiros
Key to Auwahi forest restoration efforts was planting closely spaced, rapidly growing native shrubs.

"The concept is using native shrubs almost as like ecosystem engineers, kind of working for you and to keep out the weeds. It’s basically rebuilding habitat around native trees. I used to say rebuild the habitat and they will come,” says Medeiros.

Since the project began, more than 1,600 volunteersput in over 37,000 hours of forest restoration work.

Credit Dr. Art Medeiros

“We planted about 125,000 native trees over the last 20 years,” says Medeiros, “You know the volunteers love to go up there. They’re always bugging me to go up there. They always tell me how restorative actually being up there is. One time I made a comment, ?Who’s restoring who??”

Credit Dr. Art Medeiros
Dark green patch of land is one of the Auwahi forest exclosures after 10 years of restoration work.

Two decades of work increased native species cover in restoration areas from 3 percent to 82 percent.

“For me as a biologist, the amazing thing is the trees that hadn’t produced in 200, 300 years, successfully, started to produce babies. I started to see seedlings of native trees in the exclosures that I had never seen before,” says Medeiros.

Credit Dr. Art Medeiros
A naturally-occurring ?iliahi seedling. ?Iliahi is a native sandalwood tree.

“I’d like to bring them back to the point when we can harvest them in a sustainable way and kind of rebirth parts of the culture that are tied up in the forest.”

To volunteer, click here. For more information the Auwahi Forest Restoration Project, visit auwahi.org

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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