Oahu was once covered with koa and sandalwood trees in lush mountain forests.

Nowadays, you have to hike long and hard to find any endemic trees, and when you finally come across the trees they often appear isolated and scrawny.

Hawaii’s majestic thickets of koa, milo and sandalwood have all but disappeared, making way for sugar and pineapple plantations and cattle ranching.  And today, more and more native trees are vanishing, chopped down at random by carvers to fashion into pricey bowls.

But soon Oahu residents and visitors will be able to take part in a massive effort to restore the long-lost native forest that once stretched from the mountains to the sea at Malaekahana near Laie.  Donors will be given the chance to plant endemic trees that will grow tall and thick, never to be harvested.

“The Lone Koa” believed to be one of the last old growth koa trees still surviving at Kukaiau on the Big Island. It is believed to be 150 years old. New trees planted by donors will not mature for 25 years. Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat


Hawaiian Legacy Reforestation Initiative (HLRI), a Hawaii Island nonprofit, is in the final stages of talks about collaboration with Hawaii Reserves (HRI) to launch a tree-planting program at Gunstock Ranch at Malaekahana.

It will be the first legacy tree planting of its kind on Oahu.

Gunstock Ranch is owned by HRI, the land management arm of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons).

HLRI’s legacy plantings on the island of Hawaii have been primarily koa and sandalwood.  But at Malaekahana the plantings will include a variety of trees native to the particular Windward Oahu area such as milo, kou, sandalwood and a few koa trees.

“We may all live to see an intact, ahupuaa (Hawaiian land division). An entire native Hawaiian ecosystem at Malaekahana,” says Jeffrey Dunster, the president of the reforestation organization. “That will be phenomenal.”

Legacy planting is a program in which donors make a tax-deductible donation to plant a tree in their name, or the name of their club or business or an individual.

Big Island Restoration Efforts

HRLI already has two legacy forests on Hawaii Island.

In its first reforestation effort, HLRI has planted 400,000 koa and sandalwood trees on 1,200 acres it leases from Kukaiau Ranch on the slopes of Mauna Kea above the Hamakua Coast.

And it’s beginning a second koa and sandalwood legacy forest in collaboration with former ranch manager Monty Richards at Kahua Ranch in the Kohala Mountains.

When I was at the Merrie Monarch Festival last week, my husband, Bob Jones, and I planted two koa trees in HLRI’s forest at Kukaiau Ranch.

This is how it works there.  For $60, a donor can arrange on-line to have HLRI plant a koa tree in the donor’s name or any name of anyone the donor designates. Or for a $100 donation, HLRI will plant a sandalwood tree. Twenty dollars of each donation is redirected to a charity of the donor’s choice.

For $110, a donor can both buy a tree sponsorship and take a trip to the forest to plant the tree in person. http://hawaiianlegacytours.com

To begin our tour, we drove 34 miles north of Hilo to tiny Umikoa Village at the 3,100-foot elevation of Mauna Kea.

Once there, guide Robert Bethea helped us select our own koa saplings. Then we boarded an off-road utility vehicle to bump over dirt roads and through former cow pastures up to the chilly, 5,000-foot level to plant our trees.

The ride alone was worth the experience. Like something you would have to pay for at Disneyland.  It was thrilling to be zigzagging through grass and mud up the east side of Mauna Kea, through ancient old-growth koa trees and stands of blooming lehua in shades of yellow, orange and red, and newer koa plantings in different stages of growth.

“It is so different. Out of this world. Look at the thickness of the forest. From the road below you would never know this exists up here,” said my husband.

Driving up to the 5,000-foot level on the eastern slopes of Mauna Kea volcano to plant koa saplings. Bob Jones/Civil Beat


We placed our saplings in moist, fertile soil on the far side of a wide field of grass where a helicopter sometimes lands to bring visitors to plant trees.

Koa trees take 25 years to reach maturity. It is touching to know our trees will be nurturing the once denuded Mauna Kea ranch land long after we have died.

Each tree is outfitted with its own radio frequency identification number. Donors can find their trees and watch them grow on line in the comfort of their homes by typing the tree’s identification number on https://legacytrees.org.

“You can zoom in and say ‘hey, there’s my tree.’ The resolution is so clear, you can see right down to the blades of grass growing around the tree,” says Dunster.

Our guide, Robert Bethea, says the identification system also aids scientific research by making it possible to monitor the day-by- day growth and health of each tree.

“We know exactly where every tree was planted and where its mother tree is. We can learn a lot from this project,” says Bethea.

Native Hawaiian birds, which fled the area when trees were chopped down to create cow pastures, are now returning to soar through the reforested groves.

“Just yesterday a pueo (native Hawaiian owl) flew over the back of my neck,” said Bethea.

Carbon Offsets Subsidize Tree Planting

To help subsidize the legacy tree program, HRLI sells carbon credits certified by the Gold Standard Foundation in Switzerland for the carbon sequestering provided by its koa and sandalwood trees. It is the only program providing certified carbon credits in Hawaii.

Paradise Helicopters, which brings visitors to the Kukaiau site where we planted out trees, has purchased carbon credits  ($44 per metric ton) to offset the carbon it creates with its flights. Hagadone Printing in Honolulu also has purchased carbon credits from HLRI to reduce its carbon footprint.

Dunster says income from carbon credit sales helps pay for maintenance costs, fencing and employee salaries for the legacy tree operation.

“It just shows that the trees are more valuable left in the ground,” says Dunster.

As the legacy forest comes to fruition later this year in Malaekahana, Oahu residents will have a chance to make a small donation to a large cause that benefits thousands of others by bringing back clean air, native birds and rich good soil.

Hawaiian Legacy Reforestation Initiative’s goal is to help donors plant a total of 1.3 million native trees across the state, one for each person in Hawaii. And with the planned Oahu forest expansion, it is well on its way.







About the Author