Jack Nessen has helped plant hundreds of native trees at Puuwaawaa, a dryland forest ecosystem on Hualalai’s northern flank.
However, on a cloudy, cool Wednesday afternoon, the trees that matter most to the 75-year-old volunteer were the skinny seedlings he was tasked with pressing into the open pasture of Waihou.
Joseph Rock, a territorial forester and famous botanist, once considered this approximately 204-acre section of Puuwaawaa to be one of the most botanically rich areas in the Hawaiian Islands. A transitional woodland with mixed vegetation, Waihou is the link between the moist montane and lowland dry forests found in the ahupuaa. Today, invasive weeds and grasses have almost completely replaced native understory plants and trees, said Elliott Parsons, Puuwaawaa coordinator and Natural Area Reserves System specialist for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
The entire Puuwaawaa region was forested at one time, but threats like wildfires, drought, invasive species and more than 100 years of livestock grazing have removed much of that native vegetation, he added.
With help from a $5,000 grant from the American Forests Global ReLeaf program, DLNR’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife is continuing efforts to restore 25 acres of Waihou.
Tree plantings have been held annually here during the wettest part of the year, typically November through March. This effort started less than a decade ago by former ahupuaa coordinator Mike Donoho and continued last year with the planting of 1,000 trees led by Parsons, who then worked for Three Mountain Alliance.
Nessen was one of three volunteers who participated in the first of several tree plantings happening this month and in February. He has been coming to Hawaii Island for 50 years and found this to be the best home away from Wisconsin.
Though a part-time Kailua-Kona resident, Nessen has always dedicated time to do volunteer work locally. He especially loves the outdoors, doing physical work and making a contribution to nature.
Over the years, he has helped with various efforts at Puuwaawaa, planting trees, building trails and removing barb wire fences, discarded tires and old irrigation pipe from a former protea farm. He enjoys the natural beauty of the place and being able to witness the progress of the restoration work.
Volunteers of all ages are still needed to help plant 6,000 aaliii, mamane and koa. However, those younger than 18 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian, as well as sign a waiver, Parsons said.
The next plantings are from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Jan. 28, 29, 30 and 31. The February plantings have yet to be set and will be announced later. Reservations are required, as space is limited to 10 people a day, unless participants have a four-wheel-drive vehicle and are willing to carpool.
The goal is to get between 200 and 600 trees in the ground each planting. Three volunteers, two DLNR employees and an AmeriCorps intern planted 178 trees Wednesday, Parsons said.
Ted Quist of Alberta, Canada, participated Wednesday in his first tree planting at Puuwaawaa. While visiting the island for three weeks, he learned about this volunteering opportunity from Nessen, his good friend. Quist, 72, decided to participate because “it’s important to help improve the preserve and help restore it to its natural state.” He also thinks such opportunities are also “worthwhile and good for the soul.”
“Everyone should be proud of where you live, take care of it and contribute to the best of your ability,” he added.
Without volunteers, as well as key management partners and local nonprofits, it would take DLNR’s three-person staff at Puuwaawaa at least three months to plant all the seedlings themselves. Efforts like this are fun and provide exciting hands-on opportunities to discover the area’s rich cultural history and learn about ways to get involved, use or support public land like Puuwaawaa, Parsons said.
Year-round, DLNR staff collect seeds at Puuwaawaa. They’re opportunistic about seed collecting because a lot of species are sporadic seeders. There are also 14 endangered plant species and it’s not predictable when seeds are available, Parsons said.
The 6,000 seedlings were propagated at the Kamuela State Tree Nursery in Waimea and took a little over a year to grow, Parsons said.
Parsons said healthy watersheds are important because of beneficial ecosystem services provided, including the availability of clean drinking water, important wildlife habitat and places for enjoyment and recreation. Healthier tree groves can lead to greater diversity and support more populations of native species, sheltering thousands of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world.
Forests are also a vital link to the survival of Hawaiian cultural practices. For instance, halapepe was used for lei and kauila was valued as tool wood, Parsons said. “When you lose a species, you also risk losing a part of the culture,” he added.
To participate in the tree plantings or for more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.