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Plans underway to make Kapāpala forest a long-term source for koa canoes

The Kapāpala Canoe Forest on the southeastern slopes of Maunaloa includes more than 1,200 acres of forest that have historically been used by traditional canoe carvers.

More than 30 years ago, the state set aside about 1,200 acres of forest in Kaʻū on Hawaiʻi Island to address a significant decline in koa trees.

The Kapāpala Canoe Forest on the southeastern slopes of Maunaloa includes trees that have historically been used by traditional canoe carvers.

The state is now developing a plan to have the forest serve as a sustainable, long-term source of koa for constructing canoes.

Ethnobotanist Katie Kamelamela said the management plan for Kapāpala is the first of its kind.

"They’re really setting the standard for what a koa canoe would look like," Kamelamela said.

Back in 2015, Kamelamela participated in a working group of key stakeholders for Kapāpala, including Kaʻū kūpuna, canoe builders, conservationists and others.

"The whole goal of the working group was to create an application to help facilitate allocation of the logs to different canoe associations and community groups," she said.

That process includes cultural protocols for harvesting such as chanting and ceremony, as well as plans for financing the harvest and extracting the log from rugged terrain.

Gary Puniwai, who represents several kālai waʻa, or canoe carvers, on the working group, said the final plan will need to address which trees can be taken out, as well as who gets the logs.

"And then those groups will have to come up with the full cost of doing it. The state is not doing any of this, it's all on the canoe clubs to take care of the harvesting and transporting and all of that," Puniwai said.

The working group estimates the entire process could cost nearly $100,000 per canoe. But that’s not stopping kālai waʻa like Puniwai, who see Kapāpala as a potential model for including cultural practices in the management of our forests.

"Our forests are not set up to be used. They’re kind of more preserved. So this one place is allowing that use," Puniwai said.

The Department of Land and Natural Resources is hosting a public meeting on the management plan for Kapāpala this Saturday, April 1, at the Kaʻū District Gym in Pāhala beginning at 9 a.m.

The Kapāpala Canoe Forest Community Meeting is open to the public and can be accessed virtually.

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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