KAILUA-KONA — It was one word written last year by Hawaii Community College – Palamanui lecturer Richard Stevens that grabbed Juanita Thompson’s attention.
“What he wrote was ‘a team of five to six people to rescue wiliwili trees,” Thompson said. “And just the word ‘rescue’ kinda caught me, and I was like, ‘I’d like to rescue these trees. I don’t know what they are!’”
Thompson, born and raised in Kona, had seen the trees in Waikoloa, but didn’t know their name, and jumped at the opportunity.
Starting at a group of five wiliwili trees down below a water tank mauka of the campus, Thompson began clearing out fountain grass when she “fell in love.”
“It was just majestic, like ‘wow,’” she said, describing the tree’s golden hue. “I looked at it like it was like a king or something.”
Since then, Thompson’s passion for the wiliwili trees and conservation has only deepened. In December, she started collecting seeds from the trees, connected with the state nursery and learned to propagate a new generation of the trees.
“They just want to be together again,” she said of the trees. “I feel like that is the purpose of why they gave me all the seeds.”
And now as one of a group working to save the wiliwili, Thompson said she feels like she’s in “an honorable position.”
“Because every time I’m up here and cleaning, I think of my ancestors, and my great-great-great grandmother and great-great-great grandfather,” she said. “And this is how they lived.”
The effort is part of a vision by Stevens to have hundreds of acres of state-owned land declared as a preserve to protect native plants and historical features near the campus — with a grove of about 30 wiliwili trees in about 6 acres as its crown jewel.
There’s already a 55-acre dry land forest preserve mauka of the college campus, and Stevens said efforts to restore an ancient 2-mile trail that reaches that preserve have been ongoing since before the campus was completed.
And now, Stevens said, they want to make a link to the state-owned parcel immediately south of that preserve with the idea of creating a 500-acre preserve.
“The 55-acre preserve is considered probably the most significant low-land dry forest preserve in the state,” he said. “So if that 55 acres is that significant, imagine how significant 500 acres or more is.”
But while the vision for a preserve has been in the works for years, it gained a new sense of urgency following the discovery of the grove and the threats it faces.
Stevens found the grove about a month ago as he was looking for a way to link the ancient trail with a way to connect to a nature trail closer to the campus.
“I was just thrilled to think that we have so many wiliwili trees up there,” he said.
But when Stevens and others returned later, they noticed the damage caused by goats in the area.
The goats, Stevens explained, eat and rub their horns on the trees’ bark. When the bark is stripped around a tree’s circumference, it cuts off the flow of nutrients, effectively starving the tree.
It’s a graphic example of how forests become grasslands, he said.
The goats, he said, kill the younger trees, eat any that start to sprout and older trees eventually die. And when the trees get weak, the goats can easily push them over.
“Once these trees die, it’s grass that takes over,” Stevens said. “And so that’s what’s happening up here right now: trees are being killed, the grasslands expand and you have no forest then after a while.”
The wiliwili tree, endemic to Hawaii, isn’t considered endangered by the state or federal government, but Native Plants Hawaii, a joint project between Kapiolani Community College and Leeward Community College that lists it as “at risk.”
Stevens said declaring the area a reserve would add an official stamp of support from the university and state and also allow them to search for what they need to build a fence.
David Smith, administrator of the Division of Forestry and Wildlife under the Department of Land and Natural Resources, said officials have agreed in principle to set land aside as a reserve and are in the process of researching and surveying to determine which specific lands should be protected.
There are at least two TMK parcels involved, Smith said, adding that he’s still awaiting maps from the University of Hawaii that indicate the area they are eyeing for protection. The lands would eventually get set aside for Forestry and Wildlife to be managed as a forest reserve or natural area reserve.
Smith said the timeline is dependent on factors including any complications involved, such as whether a subdivision would be required.
And the reserve would be no small thing for the college, either, Stevens noted.
“It would make us unique, for one thing, to be a university campus with a very large and significant preserve on its doorstep,” he said.
It’s also a point of significance for Stevens’ students, like Stephany Hayes, who is working toward a bachelor’s degree in education.
Hayes’ love of trees connected with Stevens’ love of trees “within minutes,” she said.
“Kona is growing. The population is growing, houses are being built everywhere,” she said. “And the more people that know that we need to save part of this gem, the better. And the more people that are connected and intertwined through it, who are working towards saving it and restoring what was lost, the more beneficial it’s going to be to Kona and to the Hawaiian people.”