Rebirth of a Hawaiian Forest

At a national wildlife refuge on the Big Island, staff and volunteers are restoring a damaged woodland that is home to at least 34 endangered bird species

  • Joan Conrow
  • Feb 01, 2008
ON A HAWAIIAN WINTER DAY so clear that Mauna Kea’s rounded, volcanic summit emerges from its usual blanket of clouds above the Big Island, federal biologist Jack Jeffrey stands in a shady grove of koa trees at Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge. He is watching a tiny ‘amakihi, a native honeycreeper, dart through the sun-dappled canopy. Suddenly, an ‘akiapola‘au—the Big Island’s rarest bird, with perhaps 1,000 to 1,500 individuals in the wild—begins to loudly sing.

Jeffrey quickly trains his binoculars on the well-spaced branches, spotting first the trilling, bright yellow male, then his dull green, silent mate and finally their fledgling, which is venturing out on its own yet maintaining contact with its parents through the steady cheep, cheep, cheep of its juvenile call. The family will stay together for more than a year, while the chick masters use of a complex bill that handily extracts insects and grubs from dead branches, woodpecker-style.

“This is one of the few places in the state where the native bird population is stable or increasing,” Jeffrey says. “Our annual forest bird surveys show that the endangered Hawaii creeper population has doubled, and the Hawaii ‘akepa [a type of honeycreeper] are on the rise. It shows that management is working.”

The Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge lies on the eastern slope of Mauna Kea at elevations ranging from 3,500 to 6,500 feet. It is located on the island of Hawaii, also called the Big Island both because it is larger than all the other Hawaiian islands combined and to avoid confusion with the name of the entire state. When the federal government founded the 33,000-acre refuge in 1985, specifically to protect endangered Hawaiian forest birds, it included some of the Big Island’s best remaining upland rain forest. 

Hakalau Forest is frequented by the hoary bat, Hawaii’s only native land mammal, and 14 native bird species. Eight of them are endangered, as is the bat. More than 200 nene geese—Hawaii’s state bird, rescued from the brink of extinction—live in the refuge, along with 13 migratory and 20 introduced bird species. Twenty-nine rare plant species, a dozen of which are either proposed for or already on the Endangered Species List, also inhabit the refuge. Refuge staff have been planting native trees and shrubs to help restore the Hakalau Forest, which was damaged by livestock and other inroads of development. Their efforts are making the refuge a model for forest restoration.

“It took 2,000 years for nature to create this forest,” Jeffrey says. But in the 200 years since Western contact, livestock and introduced plants have taken a toll on Hakalau Forest. Grazing cattle nearly obliterated the koa forest in the drier regions above 6,000 feet. This process of degradation has been repeated throughout the state, and as the islands’ forests declined, so did the birds. Half of Hawaii’s 140 native bird species and subspecies are extinct. Of the 69 that remain, half are endangered. Some have not been seen for so long that naturalists believe they are gone. Others, like the Hawaiian crow, or ‘alala, survive only in captivity.

“Because of plant and animal extinctions, we’ve lost a lot of pieces to the puzzle,” Jeffrey says, “and humans are unable, with their limited knowledge, to re-create all the components of an intact native forest.” But Hawaiian land managers have figured out, in part through trial and error, how to kick-start the process. At Hakalau Forest, they began by dividing 14,000 acres of degraded lands into eight fenced management units, then systematically removed wild cattle and pigs.

Freed of grazing pressure, lands with standing native tree canopy and seed banks began to regenerate naturally, augmented by the refuge staff’s ongoing efforts to remove blackberry, gorse, holly and other unwelcome exotic plants. But the upper elevation acreage, reduced to pasture by grazing cattle, needed a boost, and that’s where refuge workers and volunteers have planted some 356,000 native seedlings over the past 20 years.

They started with koa, an endemic acacia tree, protecting young saplings from frost with custom-made shade cloth until the trees reached a height of about 3 feet. After about eight years, when the koa had grown into a 20-foot-high sheltering canopy, refuge staff and volunteers planted crimson-blossomed o’hia trees, oblong-leafed kolea and other woody and shrubby natives, including some endangered species, to help create the understory. Fern spores drifted in and sprouted in the burgeoning leaf litter, and forest birds soon followed. Jeffrey observed the ‘akiapola‘au family in koa trees planted only a decade ago.

As one of the largest conservation projects in the state, Hakalau Forest serves as a restoration model for private landowners, such as The Nature Conservancy and many Big Island ranches. The reforested lands are visible from the air at a distance of 30 miles, a sight “that warms me right down to the cockles of my heart,” says Richard Wass, the Hakalau refuge manager. “It really gives me joy, seeing those long lines of trees and thick understory in [previously] grazed areas.”

Still, in many respects Hakalau Forest is an oasis. The state Division of Forestry and Wildlife manages the Piha tract, a 4,000-acre strip of land running smack through the middle of the refuge, for sustainable-yield pig hunting. Wass hopes the federal government will one day secure the parcel, although pig hunters are a powerful lobby on the Big Island, and property acquisition between government agencies is a long, protracted process at best. “Meanwhile, we’re just trying to get along and keep our fences up,” Wass says. 

Another immediate neighbor is the Department of Hawaiian Homelands (DHHL), a state agency created by federal law that must generate its own funds to develop housing for native Hawaiians. In decades past, the agency leased land around the refuge to Big Island ranchers, who accidentally introduced the gorse that now runs rampant in open pastures. In an attempt to shade out the spiny pest plant, DHHL is planting fast-growing Japanese tsugi pines that federal managers consider a threat to Hakalau Forest. Although Wass and Jeffrey have suggested the agency instead plant koa, which grew there in the past, DHHL managers have their own plans—and the autonomy to implement them.

Relations between federal and state agencies are not always strained, however. Refuge managers and DHHL recently partnered to plant koa on 200 acres of gorse-choked DHHL land bordering Hakalau Forest. The idea is to create a buffer zone along the western edge of the refuge and see whether koa will effectively shade out the gorse, Jeffrey says. The two agencies are now discussing plans to reforest another several hundred acres in the same area.

Federal managers hope the buffer will attract more wildlife to the safe haven of Hakalau Forest, where volunteers donate some 7,000 hours of labor each year, helping to ensure that restoration efforts continue despite significant funding cuts to the National Wildlife Refuge System under the current administration.

Still, Jeffrey cautions against complacency. “Within the refuge, we now have a protected area and people say, ‘Isn’t this great,’ but the birds have other ideas, and they can fly,” he says. Hawaii’s distinctive honeycreepers, such as ‘i’iwi, follow the o’hia bloom to feed on the nectar, a pattern that takes them into lower elevation areas where they encounter mosquitoes carrying avian malaria—an introduced disease usually fatal to native forest birds. “To protect these species, habitat has to be restored on a landscape level, not just a few postage stamp plots,” Jeffrey says. “Bring back the habitat, and the birds will follow.”

Joan Conrow lives on the island of Kauai, Hawaii.

NWF in Action: Helping Imperiled Species

NWF is seeking better funding for federal endangered species protection to ensure that jeopardized species are properly listed and that listed species are managed to achieve recovery goals. For more information, go to The Conservation Council for Hawai’i, an NWF affiliate and a leading wildlife organization in the state, is actively supporting research on native Hawaiian species. It also distributes teacher’s guides to local schools, seeks to influence policies affecting state wildlife conservation and sponsors field trips as part of its effort to connect people with nature. For more information, visit

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The Struggle to Protect Hawaii’s Birds

The palila is the last remaining finch-billed Hawaiian honeycreeper on the main islands and the only remaining Hawaiian bird that lives exclusively in dry forests. It feeds on the leaves, flowers and particularly the seeds of the mämane tree, which grows at elevations between 6,500 and 10,000 feet high. By the early 1990s, the endangered bird survived in only a single population on the west slope of Mauna Kea in a region that amounted to about 5 percent of its historical range, which had dwindled in the wake of livestock grazing. To speed recovery and reduce the threat of loss to a catastrophic event, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and state agencies, began in 1997 to capture palilas and release them into suitable habitat on the north slope of the mountain. About 200 of the birds have been translocated since then. Nesting by translocated birds suggests promise for this species.

Another Hawaiian species, the nene goose, has recovered from a low of only about two dozen birds, all on the Big Island, to as many as 1,800 living on almost all of the large Hawaiian islands. In some areas the geese are numerous enough to become pests for golfers and homeowners.

Other species continue to spiral downward. The akekee and akikiki, on the island of Kauai, are hovering on the brink of extinction. Birders commonly found both species on the island until recent years, when sightings all but ceased. Both birds live in high-elevation forests and are jeopardized by habitat loss. FWS in 2005 concluded that the akikiki qualified as an endangered species but refused to list it for budgetary reasons. USGS biologists believe that warming temperatures could allow mosquitoes to enter the birds’ habitats, exposing them to diseases that could prove deadly.—Roger Di Silvestro

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Refuge Rewards: Facts, Figures and Finance

The National Wildlife Refuge System, administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), includes 548 refuges covering almost 97 million acres. In 2006, the system generated $1.7 billion for regional economies, almost four times the $383 million budgeted for the system in fiscal year 2006, according to FWS. Visitor spending on refuge activities helped create 26,798 jobs and about $543 million in employment income. About 82 percent of the money spent by refuge visitors was for activities other than hunting and fishing. These activities included wildlife-watching and photography.

More than 37 million people visited national wildlife refuges in 2006. The Southeast Region tallied the most visitors and includes the most-visited refuge in the system:—Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, which alone had 7.5 million recreational visits. Chincoteague also generated the most jobs of any one refuge—3,766—and the highest economic benefit—$315.4 million, for a return of $155.42 on every dollar budgeted for the site.

Only 36 national wildlife refuges, including Chincoteague, charge an entrance fee, usually set at $3 or $4. Purchase of a $15 federal duck stamp, good from July 1 to June 30 each year, will allow a visitor unlimited access to fee-charging refuges. All other refuges are free.

President Theodore Roosevelt established the first national wildlife refuge, Pelican Island off Florida, in 1903 to protect the last nesting site for brown pelicans from the state’s east coast. By the time he left office in 1908, he had created 55 federal bird and wildlife preserves, the basis of today’s National Wildlife Refuge System.—Roger Di Silvestro

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