Rare Garden in the Realm of the Gods

High on a mountain in Maui, one of Hawaii's most biologically rich areas is now protected forever

  • Mark Wexler
  • Apr 01, 1997
Randy Bartlett is a soft-spoken, mild-mannered man who hardly seems suited for waging war. Yet for several years now, that's exactly what this 36-year-old Hawaii native has been doing on the forested slopes of a West Maui mountain called Pu'u Kukui.

Bartlett's battleground is a place where the plant life is so lush, the smells so sweet, the air so misty and the terrain so rugged that the environment has a distinct, other-worldly feel to it. Rising nearly 5,800 feet above sea level, the peak is the highest point in a West Maui mountain range that ancient Hawaiians believed was the realm of the gods. Pu'u Kukui ("Hill of Light") was considered to be the juncture between heaven and Earth--a crucial point at which the gift of abundant rain touched down to enrich the land. Indeed, with an average annual rainfall of 375 inches, the mountain is one of the wettest places on the planet.

In this ethereal environment, Bartlett serves as a field general for the Maui Land and Pineapple Company (ML&P), Pu'u Kukui's landlord for the past century. His arch enemies: exotic plants and feral pigs that have infested parts of the region, destroying populations of rare endemic species and entire plant communities. "Where the pigs root and trample the native vegetation," he says, "soil is quickly eroded, causing siltation of our streams and ultimately damaging the quality of our local water supply."

The destruction by pigs also opens up the area to fast-growing introduced plant species that already have overwhelmed other South Pacific islands. "At times, it seems like we're losing the battle," says Bartlett. "But we're not giving up. There's too much at stake."

At stake, in this case, is the Pu'u Kukui watershed, one of Hawaii's most biologically rich regions and site of some of the Aloha State's last stands of pristine native rain forest. In 1988, ML&P protected the 8,600-acre area in perpetuity as the largest private natural reserve in the islands, and hired Bartlett as watershed supervisor to begin weeding pests from the mountain. Four years ago, the reserve became one of the first major additions to Hawaii's landmark Natural Area Partnership Program, in which the state puts in $2 for every $1 the company spends to safeguard the site--the first such program of its kind in this country.

"It's an unprecedented partnership between a conservation agency and a private landowner to protect an area," says Hawaii scientist Steven Montgomery, a member of the board of directors of both NWF and the Conservation Council for Hawaii, an NWF affiliate. Adds Mark White, director of Maui Programs for The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii: "There are plenty of examples of people donating land, but I can't think of another instance where the landowner has dedicated its land forever to conservation and then helped foot the bill to pay for that conservation."

Pu'u Kukui is home to 12 of Hawaii's 150 distinct plant communities, some 300 species of native Hawaiian plants (including 10 that are found only in West Maui) and thousands of native insects and animals, many of which have yet to be identified by scientists. One of its greatest attri-butes, however, is its ability to recharge local water supplies. "Pure water is a precious commodity throughout the United States, and watersheds like that at Pu'u Kukui are crucial sources of it," says Tim Eder, team leader of NWF's water quality program.

The mountain's many layers of forest absorb the millions of gallons of rain that fall each year, enabling the water to percolate down through permeable lava rock into a vast subterranean aquifer. That aquifer supplies water to ML&P's adjacent agricultural fields and secluded resort, Kapalua, as well as to the homes and businesses of thousands of West Maui residents. "The watershed is the lifeblood of our local economy," says Bartlett. "It's also a treasure chest of species peculiar to our state."

Located more than 2,000 miles from the nearest continent, the Hawaiian archipelago is the world's most remote island chain. Over millions of years, only two terrestrial mammals ever reached these islands on their own: the hoary bat (which lives on Pu'u Kukui) and the monk seal, both currently listed as endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Eighty-nine percent of Hawaii's 1,000 or so native flowering plant species grow nowhere else on Earth. In the last century, however, botanists estimate that about 10 percent of these native species have become extinct as their forest habitat has disappeared. Dozens more currently are threatened with extinction. "That's why remote rain forests like Pu'u Kukui are so important," says Ken Wood, research collector for the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Kauai.

Wood is among the many researchers who have ventured into the Maui watershed in recent years in search of endemic species. "Last August," he says, "we found a number of populations of rare Hawaiian plants there. Some of those species had not been seen by botanists in years." Several months earlier on Pu'u Kukui, entomologists from the Smithsonian Institution collected specimens of a new genus of spider. "There is a real possibility of discovering something new every time we go up the mountain," notes Hank Oppenheimer, one of Bartlett's assistants.

In recent months, Bartlett's team has spent countless hours on top of the mountain, building a narrow wooden boardwalk to allow scientists to explore one of Pu'u Kukui's--and indeed, Hawaii's--most unique plant communities: the peat bog, which stretches for a few miles across the summit. The peat, which measures as thick as 14 feet in many places, accumulates at a rate of about 1 foot for every 10,000 years, according to carbon-dating tests of core samples.

On top of the peat lies an unusual layer of vegetation in which virtually every plant is miniaturized. Ohi'a trees, which grow as tall as 70 feet in other forests in Hawaii, reach maturity after several decades of growth on Pu'u Kukui at less than 1 foot in height. The reason for such dwarfed vegetation: In the water-saturated bog soil, the plants do not get enough oyxgen to grow to full height.

"Once this vegetation cover of just a few inches is broken by a hiker's foot, one can easily sink hip-deep in the soft peat, causing damage that will take thousands of years to heal," says Bartlett, who keeps the area closed to the public to prevent such occurrences.

The watershed supervisor is also worried about hikers accidentally carrying seeds from exotic plants on their clothes into the area. Of particular concern are Miconia and Tibuchina, two exotic ornamental plants that originally came to Hawaii from South America. Miconia now covers roughly 70 percent of the rain forests in Tahiti and has spread across thousands of acres in Hawaii. It has yet to crop up on Pu'u Kukui. Tibuchina, on the other hand, has in recent years moved rapidly up the mountain, displacing many native species. To wage war against the invasive plant, Bartlett and his assistants are using chemical controls and an old-fashioned technique: pulling it out by hand.

Such labor-intensive efforts have already paid off in stopping another adversary, the wild pig. In the past few years, the ML&P crew has removed more than 90 percent of the feral creatures from the watershed--a fact that another assistant to Bartlett, Scott Meidell, is particularly pleased about.

A former Maui police officer who has worked in the watershed for the past seven years, Meidell once came face-to-face with a 150-pound boar on the slopes of Pu'u Kukui. Before Meidell could escape, the creature charged and sunk one of its tusks into his foot, then picked him up and flung him straight over its head. Meidell walked down the mountain, his foot hemorrhaging.

Despite the experience, Meidell would not trade his job for anything. "I can't think of any work more gratifying than observing the intelligence of nature's design at every turn, and knowing that every task we do helps to sustain a primeval balance of complex relationships," he says. "I guess you could say that working at Pu'u Kukui somehow validates my own life."

National Wildlife Editor Mark Wexler visited the slopes of Pu'u Kukui in Maui last August.

Water Quality: An NWF Priority 
Safeguarding the integrity of the nation's watersheds is a key priority of the National Wildlife Federation's water-quality team, which has initiated a number of programs throughout the country to help protect people and wildlife from contaminated water supplies. If you would like to stay informed on these efforts, click on www.nwf.org/waters.

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