Bringing Back Our Koa Forests

It cuts through the ocean with ease and power, slicing through oncoming surf with grace and strength, and is one of the most magnificent displays of nature and man blending as one.

The koa canoe long has been an important part of Hawaiian culture. The building of a new vessel was often an event, involving different members of a village.

It still is today.

The process begins with the selection of the right koa tree, for it is more than just a log. There is a strict protocol to follow, and it is essential each step be done correctly with proper rituals in order to preserve the life of the tree that eventually protects those who use it.

Native Hawaiians believed that each koa canoe was a living entity with its own its own spiritual power, its own mana.

It still is today.

But where would we be without our valuable koa trees? It’s a question that needs to be asked when thinking about the future.

“Hawaii’s forests, it’s not just the trees and the beauty that they provide,” says Travis Idol, president of Hawaii Forest Institute (HFI) and a professor at University of Hawaii’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Management.

“It’s also the watersheds, the fresh water that we rely on, it’s the habitat for native birds, and it’s also extremely important culturally to native Hawaiians as well to our tourism and visitor industry. It’s the reason why we are supported by not only Native Hawaiian organizations but also Hawaii Tourism Authority.”

Hawaii Forest Institute is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the restoration of our forests, including our precious koa trees, which grow only in Hawaii.

“We (HFI) engage volunteers and students in environmental and cultural education, as well as promoting information sharing and support for research on how we can maintain our precious forests,” says Idol. “It’s about the future.”

One way is to organize community-based planting projects and programs. To celebrate 25 years of forestry stewardship, HFI recently completed a Mahalo ‘Aina: 40 Days of Hawaii’s Forests campaign, a tree-planting program aimed at ensuring our forests are here for future generations.

“Our goal was to raise $10,000 so we can partner with Hawaii Forest Industry Association (HFIA) to plant 4,000 seedlings in restoration projects around the state,” says Idol. “We’re planting trees while providing forest stewardship learning experiences for 2,000 youths at forest restoration and demonstration sites throughout Hawaii.”

The campaign came to a close Christmas Day with families, keiki and community groups all generously giving to the fundraising effort.

Children’s Discovery Forest eventually will provide youths from Hawaii’s public, charter and private schools with hands-on service learning opportunities through the planting of seedlings and ongoing site maintenance.

Idol says restoring Hawaii’s koa forests is one of the organization’s top priorities and should be an issue everyone understands and cares about.

“Koa is a beautiful hard-wood and a very fast-growing tree, which is why we like it,” explains Idol. “What we asked folks to do this year was to help us with our tree-planting campaign. We have a number of dedicated projects, mostly on Hawaii island, but now we’re expanding to Maui and Oahu.”

Organizations like Hawaii Forest Institute and Hawaii Forest Industry Association are vital to the future of Hawaii koa forests.

From furniture to flooring, jewelry and even musical instruments, koa is in high demand but supply is low. Experts say the planting of new trees simply is not keeping pace with the use of the valuable wood, and more needs to be done.

It starts with education and, like the building of a new koa canoe, it will take a village to protect and sustain this vital resource for our future.

For more information on Hawaii Forest Institute go to hawaiiforestinstitute.org, and for information on the work of Hawaii Forest Industry Association, go to hawaiiforest.org. rkmizutani@gmail.com

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