WAIKOLOA — Everyone Kealaka‘i Knoche has ever brought out to the dry forest has always come away with an appreciation for the unique ecosystem, just by letting the forest do the talking.
“I feel like the plants and the forest do it themselves,” he said. “And they, in whatever way it may be, then make or reunite a connection to individual plant species, the forest itself.”
Knoche, who was leading tours at the Waikoloa Dry Forest Preserve as part of the Wiliwili Festival on Saturday, said he’s brought out people who recall their grandmothers and great-grandmothers talking about some of the species in the dry forest, but over time became lost to them.
“And when you see that reconnection, it’s really cool,” he said.
Saturday marked the annual festival’s seventh year, where visitors get a chance to learn more about the wiliwili and the larger dry forest ecosystem.
Jen Lawson, executive director of the Waikoloa Dry Forest Initiative, said the festival’s mission is to get the community more involved in the area, whether in the environment, culturally or otherwise.
The wiliwili tree, while not endangered, is “certainly in decline,” Lawson said, particularly in Waikoloa.
The lowland dry forests, she said, have some of the rarest forest types in Hawaii. And while people might be aware of the ecosystem, because it’s so restricted and has been in decline for so long, it’s not very visible and “is almost slipping away from people’s memories.”
“So we want to make sure that in this process of restoration that we get the community involved,” she said. “So that they have a stake in what we’re doing to protect it, so that they care about it, they know about it, they connect with these places.”
As an organization, she explained, the Waikoloa Dry Forest Initiative’s goal is to restore, protect and preserve the ecosystem. And at the center of that is a 275-acre preserve.
On Saturday, festival attendees had a chance to not only take home their own wiliwili starts, but also explore the preserve and learn about the ecosystem wiliwili trees make their home.
Part history lesson, part ecology lesson, the tours at the Waikoloa Dry Forest Preserve offered an immersive experience for festival visitors to build not only an appreciation for the landscape, but also a community to support it.
“This is all of ours,” said Knoche, who is also a field crew leader with Na Pu’u Resource Management, following a tour. “So we want people to feel a part of it and to embrace it and get involved with it and help manage alongside with us. Because this isn’t something that we’re doing for ourselves or our organization. We’re doing this for everyone.”
As Knoche led the tour group along the lava rock trail, he spoke frequently about not just wiliwili, but other dry forest species as well, such as uhiuhi, the wood of which is dense enough to sink in water.
He also spoke about the threats posed by invasive species like the gall wasp, which targets wiliwili trees, and efforts to keep such threats in check.
Irene and Matt Putnam of Kona said after their tour they came out knowing the wiliwili trees were a significant species and wanted to check them out for themselves.
“When you see them, you realize that they’re something that is completely different in the landscape,” said Matt Putnam. “And you know that it’s got to be a native tree.”
Irene Putnam, said she wanted to know their history, having seen the trees at Pu’u Wa’awa’a, and that the trees’ distinctive orange-hued bark “just calls to me.”
“It was beautiful,” she said.
The couple, who were taking home a wiliwili tree start from the festival, said their daughters are coming into town next month and plan to hike at Pu’u Wa’awa’a, and show them the wiliwili trees there and share what they learned during Saturday’s tour.
“And now we have more knowledge, and we can point out things, because we took the tour,” said Irene Putnam.
Lawson, too, cited the importance of getting the public to experience the dry forest and wiliwili trees firsthand.
“Once people get their hands on things or they see things up close or they learn about them in person, I feel like it really changes the way that they think about it and view it,” she said. “So that’s why we want to get as many people to see the space for themselves, so they’re not just reading about it. They can see how beautiful a wiliwili tree is.”