- The Washington Times - Friday, June 24, 2005

HAKALAU FOREST NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Hawaii (AP) — Yellowed grasses cover the lower southern slopes of Mauna Kea where impenetrable koa forests once stood on the Big Island.

But Hawaii’s largest endemic tree, with its sickle-shaped leaves, has reclaimed some of its former territory over the past two decades. Conservationists and small timber harvesters have replanted koa on thousands of acres on the Big Island and Maui, increasingly fencing out the cattle, pigs and goats that forage on koa bark and seedlings.

They hope replanting the slow-growing trees can help restore the feeding and nesting grounds of endangered native forest birds and quench demand for valuable koa timber, with a scarcity and a lustrous grain that rank it among the world’s most expensive woods. A tree can take 40 years to mature.

“Koa is a key species in the ecology of the Hawaiian forests,” said Craig Elevitch, co-author of the book “Growing Koa.” “It’s also one of the most important trees to human culture and economy in Hawaii.”

Koa trees are slowly recovering on the slopes of Mauna Kea at Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge, which was set aside specifically for forest birds.

Since the refuge opened in 1985, volunteers and refuge officials have replanted more than 271,000 koa trees on about 5,000 acres, with survival rates averaging 70 percent, said Baron Horiuchi, a horticulturist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

More than half of Hawaii’s 32 species of birds on the federal endangered species list are small forest varieties, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the refuge. Twenty-eight percent of Hawaii’s 93 native bird species are already extinct, according to federal figures.

The birds need koa to shelter the smaller plants they feed on, such as the red splayed blossoms of the ohia lehua, giant Hawaiian raspberries and marble-sized red ohelo berries. A spreading koa canopy protects seedlings and smaller plants from cold upland temperatures, which can dip into the 20s during winter on Mauna Kea.

“Koa is a pioneering tree,” Mr. Horiuchi said. “It leads the way for the rest of the forest.”

In many parts of the refuge, koa trees are the only native plants growing among the introduced species of weeds and grass. The branches on many of the larger trees at Hakalau grow in a serpentine network, an illustration of the name for this area, which means “many perches” in Hawaiian.

“The point is not to grow them straight for timber or canoe logs. They are to grow as a canopy and a bird habitat,” Mr. Horiuchi said. “I always joke with people that this place is ‘for the birds,’ but it’s true.”

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