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Pining away | DHHL creating a Christmas tree farm on Mauna Kea slopes

August 29, 2014 - 12:05am


Christmas trees have been on the slopes of Mauna Kea since the 1940s, said Mike Robinson, a Department of Hawaiian Home Lands forester.

Among the first were Douglas firs, planted high on the slopes of Mauna Kea in the Laupahoehoe ahupuaa, where the "Doctor’s Pit" lies. The trees are part of a monument to the famed Scottish botanist and explorer David Douglas who met his death there in the 1830s.

When Douglas couldn’t get a return passage home, he visited Hawaii Island, a place he had explored before. Hawaii was a regular stop each time he traveled from England to the Pacific Northwest to study plants. The Douglas fir, which is named after him, is among the hundreds of plant species he introduced Europe to, Robinson said.

After disembarking in Kohala, Douglas intended to take a route known as Laumaia Trail, which skirted Mauna Kea about the 6,000-foot level, with his servant. His journey was supposed to end with a visit to Hilo to meet with some missionary friends. Instead, Douglas was found dead in a bullock pit dug to trap wild cattle, which were then running amuck. With him was a bull, the blamed killer. His servant was not present. Nor was the money Douglas carried. However, mystery about his death ensued. Some cast suspicion about a bullock hunter and escaped prisoner Ned Gurney, who supposedly had breakfast with Douglas the morning of his death.

"Did Ned Gurney kill him and throw in the bull pen or did he just find him in one of his bull pens?" Robinson said.

Roughly 100 years after Douglas’s death, territorial foresters created a stone memorial with a plaque at the pit, which is on state Department of Land and Natural Resources land. Behind the memorial are Douglas firs, which are starting to die off because they’re so old, Robinson said.

Writer and historian Robert Oaks will be at the Lyman Museum in Hilo from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Sept. 8 to present the accomplishments and circumstances of Douglas’s life. For more information, call 935-5021 or visit

Later in the 1980s, Douglas firs were planted near Saddle Road to see if the trees could be used to control the highly invasive plant gorse. However, the first official Douglas fir trials were conducted by horticulturalist Aileen Yeh and the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center in 2002, which showed this tree species grew well in the Humuula ahupuaa and at other high elevation sites on Hawaii Island, as well as on Maui, Robinson said.

Santa’s helpers were not at the North Pole Wednesday. Instead, they spent the morning on the slopes of Mauna Kea, using dibble bars to poke holes in the ground next to rows of yellow flags, and planting seedlings of Douglas, noble and grand firs.

In five to seven years, these trees will likely be ready for an axe or chain saw to serve as holiday decor.

Part of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands Aina Mauna Legacy Program, this Christmas tree demonstration project involves importing and propagating seeds, as well as outplanting trees on DHHL land in the Humuula and Piihonua ahupuaa. The plan is to plant 1,600 trees on 2 acres every three years, said Hawaii Forest Industry Association Executive Director Heather Simmons.

The project has received approximately $23,500 in grants from DHHL, Hawaii Department of Agriculture, Hawaii County Department of Research and Development, Hawaii Forest Industry Association and Hawaii Forest Institute, Simmons said. It’s a collaboration with many partners.

Major goals include showing these species are suitable for Hawaii production; establishing protocols to grow top quality trees that can compete with and replace imported trees in local markets; helping promote the “Buy Local, It Matters” initiative; and generating cash flow for DHHL, which has an objective to achieve healthy, self-sufficient and thriving communities, DHHL forester Mike Robinson said.

“This is an empowering opportunity for Native Hawaiians to control their destiny by managing lands that they have control over and perpetuate it in ways that are appropriate,” he said.

The trees grown on DHHL land will be sold more or less at market prices. If 800 trees survive on an acre and become merchantable, and have a profit of $15 each, a grower can expect to earn $12,000 per acre over a seven-year period, Robinson said. Proceeds from the sales will go back into the project for planting more trees, ongoing maintenance, and educational activities and materials, he added.

Organizers hope this project becomes a model for other landowners in the state and leads to hundreds of acres of Christmas trees on several islands. “Locally grown Christmas trees are also considered by the Department of Land and Natural Resources to be a potentially new agricultural/forestry category that will further enhance the self-sustainability of the state,” according to the “Hawaii-grown Christmas Tree Market Potential” analysis conducted by SMS for DLNR.

Locally grown trees are also a solution to concerns about shipments of Christmas trees from the mainland, which are prone to bringing in invasive species. Such pests are harmful to Hawaii’s unique environment. State agriculture officials estimate decontaminating a container costs more than $1,000.

“In 2012 it was estimated that the total number of Christmas trees sold in Hawaii was in excess of 19,000,” according to the market analysis. “Of these, the Hawaii Department of Agriculture estimates that 183,000 Christmas trees (96 percent) were imported. The remaining approximately 7,500 Christmas trees (4 percent) were grown and sold in Hawaii.”

The project’s first phase is to establish a successful Christmas tree farm on 2 acres of land. Roughly 20 volunteers helped outplant 1,400 trees Wednesday in a remote area and another planting day will likely happen this fall. Such volunteer events are key, Robinson said.

“Volunteers get the experience of planting trees, but more importantly, they get into areas they’ve never been and they get to malama the aina and give something back,” he said. “We take so much, but we often don’t give enough back. This is a chance for them to do that.”

Ke Ana Laahana Public Charter School junior Danielle Souza volunteered to learn more about the different types of Christmas trees and why such an industry would be good for Hawaii Island. She thinks planting trees is important because the act brings “goodness and beauty to the aina.” Helping the environment is everyone’s responsibility, she added.

Wednesday’s site was selected because of its ideal characteristics, such as having full sun, adequate rain and room for rooting. Its difficult access is intended to prevent theft and vandalism, Robinson said. Eventually, DHHL would like to put the trees closer to more accessible areas. The intention is to eventually provide the family holiday tradition of visiting its tree farm to pick out and cut a tree to bring home, he added.

The seedlings were grown from seeds imported from Canada, California and Oregon. The original plan to use imported seedlings was dismissed after discovering such plants may carry the soil-borne disease Phytophthora ramorum, which causes sudden oak death, which native plants including koa, ohelo and pukiawe have shown susceptibility to, said Hawaii Research Center horticulturalist and researcher Aileen Yeh. Douglas, noble and grand firs were selected because these species were determined to be noninvasive. The seeds were propagated at Yeh’s private nursery in Hilo and at the state Division of Forestry & Wildlife nursery in Waimea.

Prior to the outplanting, the area was fenced to keep ungulates out, cleared of stumps and competing brush, plowed and leveled, as well as treated with herbicide. In this first year, the young trees will be fertilized and the weeds controlled. Those that die will be replaced. In years two and three, the trees will be pruned from the bottom and on the side to ensure a perfect Christmas tree, Robinson said. Pruning workshops and more volunteer opportunities will be held to share knowledge, he added.

The DHHL Aina Mauna Legacy Program strives to restore and protect approximately 56,000 acres of native forest that’s ecologically, culturally and economically self-sustaining for the Hawaiian Home Lands Trust, its beneficiaries and the community. After 150 years of sheep and cattle ranching, the formerly dense koa and mamane forest here has become significantly altered and the landscape is now mostly open pasture land. Gorse — a noxious weed species and “nasty plant from hell” — is threatening habitats and rendering thousands of acres useless. Field trials and research projects have shown high levels of shade — about 90 to 95 percent — from trees prevent gorse from growing and spreading. Commercial-scale planting projects like this one can help shade the gorse sufficiently, keeping it from producing seeds, growing and spreading, as well as possibly kill it, Robinson said.

“It’s nature fighting nature. Let nature control nature for us,” he said. “Then we’ll replace the shade trees with native tree species like koa, ohia and mamane once the gorse seed germination is no longer a threat, and turn it back into the forest it should be.”

Simmons said the Mauna Aina Christmas Tree Demonstration Project is also part of the Hawaii Forest Institute’s Mahala Aina: Give Back to the Forest program. It’s one of 14 restoration and demonstration projects on four islands, helping ensure forests for future generations. The institute hopes to raise $75,000 to support seed collection, propagation, planting and long-term care of seedlings, site maintenance and educational programs. The program also supports total ecosystem management, provide forest stewardship opportunities, and environmental and cultural education. To get involved or for more information, visit