Heavy harvesting of koa — known for the beautiful woodcrafts it can be made into as well as its importance to the environment and Hawaiian culture — left woodworkers with limited supply heading into this century.
Now, the state and private sector are teaming up to find a path forward for the tree that once covered most of the land in Hawaii.
Koa is not endangered — tens of thousands of acres still dot the islands — but it is estimated that only 10% of its former coverage is left. Now, state agencies responsible for protecting natural resources have made it a goal to better manage its use, mitigate its misuse and grow more of the prized tree.
Hawaii’s forest industry cannot continue getting all the koa it needs without making sustainability a primary goal. And the state cannot accomplish its reforestation efforts on the scale it hopes without investment from the private industry.
But attracting would-be koa investors is difficult given all the uncertainties surrounding the wood. There’s no template for a new koa grower to follow. Trees take decades to mature, and no large-scale plantation has carried out a full harvest yet.
It’s also unclear how many trees may actually survive, or how much money there is to make from a koa plantation.
“They can’t look around at neighbors who have done it,” said James Friday, an extension forester at the University of Hawaii. “Nobody’s gone around and waited for decades.”
Koa isn’t only valued for how it looks, but what it does for the environment.
It’s needed in Hawaii’s watersheds where the tall koa trees help to capture water and pollutants from the atmosphere. Koa forests can also help with storm runoff, and they lead the way for other native plant species to start growing while providing habitat for native birds like apapane, iiwi, amakihi and akiapolaau.
Cut koa has many uses. Now popular for flooring, jewelry, instruments, cabinets, veneers and furniture, it was once used for canoe building and fashioning weapons for use by Hawaiian warriors, who were also called koa.
And the trees grew in abundance, covering almost all the land in Hawaii. But an estimated 90% of all koa forests have been lost to harvesting, clearing or cattle grazing.
Forests were cleared for sugar plantations, and where cattle grazed, either on ranches or open pastures, koa could not grow because the animals would eat new seedlings or damage sprouting trees. That’s still a problem today on many parts of the Big Island.
But koa didn’t attract much attention until the mid 1900s. Once it did, harvesting ramped up.
“Koa has this cachet,” Steve McMinn, founder of Pacific Rim Tonewoods, said. “It’s curved, it’s from Hawaii. It’s linked to the ukulele and with the way slack key guitar influenced popular music.”
But during that period of heavy harvesting to feed a growing demand for the wood, there wasn’t enough planting.
The result has been a lack of available supply for Hawaii’s forest industry. The state Department of Land and Natural Resources estimates that the current supply of koa only meets 36% of what the market demands.
“It’s at the tail end of what has been an extractive period of time, when logs were pulled out of the forest and weren’t replenished,” Nick Kochs, president of Forest Solutions Inc., said. “The realization has come in the last 20 years that attention needs to be paid to replenish those resources.”
Most of the koa that grows today is on the Big Island. Koa also grow around the slopes of Haleakala on Maui, and on the lee side of mountain ranges on Oahu and Kauai.
Update: There’s about 217,000 acres of koa forest in Hawaii, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Koa’s habitat range, or where the species can grow, is more than 1.5 million acres.
Hawaii researchers have spent decades studying koa, and scientists now have confidence it can grow given the right conditions. But there are still gaps in knowledge like how to make it grow in certain climates and locations, or what influences how the grain looks.
“Koa timber hasn’t really been domesticated at all the way mainland timber species have been,” Friday said. “There’s lot’s of stuff we don’t know, and there’s always new things coming, always new diseases to worry about.”
And because koa was virtually wiped out in certain areas, such as lowlands in the islands, there’s worry that much of their genetic diversity — what allows them to grow in certain areas, influences how the wood looks, and has bearing on their resistance to disease — has been lost.
Koa must also be fenced, to protect from feral animals, such as cattle, pigs and goats. Unlike other woods, koa has trouble healing itself if it’s damaged by animals or humans, according to Friday.
The climate also poses issues for koa. The trees generally grow between 4,000 and 6,000 feet. And forest fires, just one consequence of Hawaii’s changing climate, also put forests in danger.
The Koa Action Plan, a 53-page document produced in 2016 by UH Manoa and DLNR, guides the state’s koa efforts.
Much of the progress made on the plan in the last few years has been on disease resistance, according to Irene Sprecher, the forestry program manager for DLNR’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife.
Now researchers are trying to selectively breed for disease resistance by taking healthy seeds from around the state and growing more trees from them. Trees in the islands have been susceptible to koa wilt, a type of fungus that lives in soil.
DLNR doesn’t have a target goal for the number of acres the state hopes to reforest. Rather, DOFAW has taken opportunities to reforest as they come. The agency is looking to grow more koa in the Honuaula Forest Reserve on the Big Island as well as on part of 2,800 acres of land in Helemano in Central Oahu.
No matter the work the state does, reforesting koa in Hawaii — at the scale DLNR hopes for — requires investment from the private sector.
“The state does tree planting every year and forest restoration every year, but with climate hurdles and the amount of land we could be reforesting for the betterment of our society and world, we need to be increasing our scale. We need to be doing it faster,” Sprecher said.
But attracting private investment has been hard, due in part to all the uncertainties surrounding the growth of koa as well as how long it takes to produce any results.
UH and DLNR have partnered to work on a financial model that would make it easier for potential investors to estimate the costs to plant koa, fence the plantation and maintain the area. The model would also allow investors and growers to get a better grasp on what money they could expect to make from the forests.
Work on the model is expected to be completed in the next six months to a year.
Leaders in Hawaii’s forest industry recognize the situation with available supply, but they say the bigger issue is getting access to what is already available across the state.
Kochs, of Forest Solutions, estimates the annual harvest volume of koa on the Big Island to be about 200,000 board feet, most of which is shipped to the mainland.
That’s only a fraction of what could be sustainably harvested in Hawaii, according to Don Bryan, president of the Hawaii Forest Industry Association.
Demand for koa wood is driven in large part by acoustic instrument manufacturers, as well as the furniture market. There’s also been a growing market for smaller shops that buy pieces of wood that in a different time would have been scrapped.
But fluctuating price points are particularly hard on small businesses and shops that make koa products. Alex Woodbury, co-owner of Kamuela Hardwoods, says he tries to keep prices at his lumber shop fairly steady and predictable for his buyers.
Woodbury estimates that of the 250,000 to 300,000 board feet of wood the company mills each year, only about 10,000 of that is koa.
While there’s desire to harvest more, the HFIA doesn’t have a target for how many koa trees are required to stabilize the market — where supply and demand have reached a sweet spot that also stabilizes the price point for koa.
“I think the industry can support a lot more economic activity than we have and can do so without coming close to over-harvesting,” Bryan said.
For private companies to invest in koa there’s also a host of other issues those in the koa business must contend with.
Timber poachers, finding milling facilities, contracting haulers, parsing through land use laws and dealing with a slew of government regulations can all make it difficult for a business just wanting to break into the industry.
Complying with environmental regulations can prove particularly troubling. Many endangered, native species including the opeapea (hoary bat) and elepaio (monarch flycatcher) make their homes in koa forests.
The best situation for the landowner would be to secure a safe harbor agreement through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agreement provides some protection to landowners who might unintentionally kill animals who populated a property after a landowner planted forests.
It’s supposed to be a win-win for landowners, but the legal process and years of negotiations aren’t feasible for most, Friday said.
There are 28 safe harbor agreements in the U.S. Pacific region, and only seven are with landowners in Hawaii.
Bryan, of the HFIA, is hoping for more streamlining of environmental regulations to expand opportunities for forestry.
That’s something DLNR has been working on, Sprecher said, including developing environmental assessments and a roadmap for how to put together a safe harbor agreement.
Nowhere is the need to balance harvesting and sustainability more apparent than in the acoustic instruments business. Besides furniture companies, demand for koa is most often associated with guitar and ukulele manufacturers in Hawaii and on the U.S. mainland.
Paniolo Tonewoods has plans to reforest more than 500 acres of pasture land in Kapoaula near Honokaa on the Big Island. The company formed as a partnership between longtime guitar wood supplier Steve McMinn and Bob Taylor, owner of Taylor Guitars.
“We’ve both seen the supply of wood for specialty applications go from a river, to a small stream, to a trickle,” McMinn said. “We’re both of the mind that if we want wood for the next 35 years, 40 years, we need to get involved with projects to plant and ensure stability of supply for the future.”
McMinn first got into guitar making when he tried to build his own about 40 years ago. He said he was discouraged with the quality of wood he got, and decided on his career path of supplying wood for the guitar industry.
In 2019, Paniolo Tonewood’s Kapoaula forest management plan won approval from the Board of Land and Natural Resources, which also approved a cost share agreement of $749,523 to help the project get started.
The crops of koa would be harvested on a rotating schedule, several decades apart, to ensure that a tree canopy covers the forest for most of its life. Eucalyptus would surround the forest, acting as a windbreak to minimize damage to trees. About 140 acres would be left alone, while the 400 or so acres that will be harvested will later be reseeded.
No seeds have been planted yet, but McMinn says he expects planting to start within the year, with the windbreaks coming up in the next month or so.
It’s a long-term investment for Paniolo Tonewoods, which isn’t expected to start seeing profits on the koa harvest until 45 years from now.
In about 65 years, after the last koa harvest, the company could expect to net between $2.8 million and $5.5 million in today’s dollars, according to the management plan. A myriad of factors could affect the ultimate value of the crop, including whether or not the koa even grow, changing prices for the wood, disease and climate change.
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