WAIMEA — Hawaii Preparatory Academy kindergarten through eighth-grade students have spent a considerable amount of time this year learning about Hawaii’s most revered tree, the ohia.
Initially, various grades took field trips to see the tree in its native state.
The eighth grade visited the Ulu Mau Puanui Kohala Field System, seventh graders hiked Lae Lae and the sixth grade visited the Koaia Tree Sanctuary on the leeward slopes of Kohala Mountain. In November, students were treated to a screening of “Saving Ohia: Hawaii’s Sacred Tree,” a documentary produced by Club Sullivan TV for the University of Hawaii (UH)/Hawaii Invasive Species Council.
Clearly, the students have learned a lot about the value of what is arguably Hawaii’s most important tree.
But what impressed them the most was the fact that Hawaii’s young, healthy ohia trees are under attack and dying from a vicious fungal disease known as rapid ohia death (ROD).
ROD public information specialists Corie Yanger and Stephanie Pasco from the UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources visited HPA several times this year, dispensing information about the perils of ROD and passing out free decontamination kits.
“Since it was discovered in 2014, hundreds of thousands ohia have already died and the disease has killed trees in all districts on Hawaii Island,” Yanger said.
“If we lose ohia, we lose the foundation of our native forests including the effectiveness of our critically important watershed.”
Spurred to action based on what they’d learned, student councils from HPA’s lower and middle schools organized and held a Glow-a-thon fundraising event on Feb. 22. The students adorned themselves with colorful glow lights and collected pledges on how many times they could walk or run around the HPA high school track.
“The students raised pledges through family and friends and we also had the Red Barn food truck there, who gave a percentage of their profits for the evening,” Lower School Principal Cathy Grant said. “It was all very community oriented.”
“The Glow-a-thon was super fun,” added HPA Middle School teacher Kim Honda. “Our students were the heroes of this event, gathering pledges and walking an incredible number of laps in support of our beautiful ohia forests.”
The students raised an impressive $7,800 and voted on who should get the funds. They selected three organizations working to research ROD causes and prevention and with schools and communities to spread awareness and understanding of the disease.
The money was distributed as follows: $3,650 to the Rapid Ohia Death Strategic Response Plan Fund supporting the work of Yanger and Pasco; $3,650 to The Akaka Foundation for Tropical Forests, Ulu Lehulehu – Million Ohia Initiative; and $500 to the Ohia Love Seed Storage Project through the Lyon Arboretum.
In an assembly April 19, Middle School Student Council Representatives Parker Smith and Ali Wawner presented a $3,650 check to The Akaka Foundation for Tropical Forests Director of Programs, Rebekah Ohara. The Lower School Student Council presented their $3,650 check to Yanger in an assembly April 21.
“It makes us feel really happy knowing you put the time and energy into supporting us like this and supporting your future,” Ohara said in accepting the donation. “It means so much to us that you all are thinking about ohia and forming relationships with this very important tree.”
Per the student’s request, Ohara said the money will support the Million Ohia Initiative and research to find ROD-resistant ohia. When ROD comes through an area, it tends to wipe out about 90 percent of the trees, but it is thought that some of the remaining trees have some resistance to the disease.
“Our ROD resistance work is to track and identify what those trees are, propagate more of them and then plant them out,” she said, adding that as the project progresses she hopes HPA students can help with plantings.
The Ulu Lehulehu – Million Ohia Initiative operates under the auspices of The Akaka Foundation for Tropical Forests working in partnership with the US Forest Service Institute for Pacific Islands Forestry and Kupu Hawaii/Americorps. It provides pathways, tools and opportunities for people to learn about, and strengthen or establish relationships with ohia so they, in turn, can participate in the conservation of native ohia trees and forests.
Since its inception in 2012, the initiative has achieved many milestones including planting 800 ohia in the Kupuae Ohia Garden at the Laupahoehoe Science and Education Center, and propagating and distributing nearly 1,200 ohia seedings to students, families, friends and community members.
In 2018, Gov. David Ige showed his respect and support for ohia by proclaiming an annual day in honor of the tree. This year’s Ohia Lehua Day was April 25. The event is timed to occur each year during the same week as the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo, and features plantings, seed giveaways and hikes hosted by various partners and ohia enthusiasts around the state.
Another recent tribute to the ohia tree is a video, shown on Hawaiian Airlines flights and now available on www.youtube.com. The video is titled “The Ohia: The Story of Hawaii’s Tree.”
USDA Forest Service Research Ecologist Christian Giardina, who has worked with a diverse team of ecologists across agencies and nonprofits on ohia conservation for the past 20 years, is featured in the video visiting one of his favorite places on earth — the Laupahoehoe Forest in the moku of North Hilo.
“Over the years I’ve come to really deeply respect and revere this species,” Giardina said. “It’s an amazing kupuna, or senior grandparent, to our larger family because it provides so much to Hawaii.”
Another featured speaker is Kawehi Lopez, a KUPU intern, who speaks appreciably of the opportunity she was given to plant ohia seeds and replant ohia trees as part of the Million Ohia Initiative.
“There’s an old Hawaiian saying, l ola oe, i ola makou nei, which means “My life is dependent on yours, your life is dependent on mine,” she said. “It’s a reminder to all of us, and the tree, that we can’t live without each other.”
In light of ROD and other factors threatening ohia, Giardina said he and other scientists are fully realizing what a precious resource the tree is to Hawaii, and how much they feel for the species.
“We and many others throughout Hawaii are personally committed to making sure this species persists in perpetuity for our kids, our children’s kids and all the kids in Hawaii,” he concluded. “It’s not just our job, it’s our obligation.”