Forging ahead: Parker Ranch outlines historic fire’s impact, future plans

  • Smoke rises along the southern flank of the 47,000-acre wildland fire in South Kohala as a U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter performs water drops Aug. 3. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

  • Kuyper

  • A helicopter drops water over burning Parker Ranch pasture amid the Big Island's and Parker Ranch's largest fire in history. (Courtesy Photo/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • Horses graze as fire burns in the distance amid the Big Island's and Parker Ranch's largest fire in history. (Courtesy Photo/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • A firebreak crosses through the 47,000-acre burn area of the Big Island largest wildland fire in history. (Courtesy photo/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • A firebreak cut far ahead of the flames on Parker Ranch is seen from the air. (Courtesy photo/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • Cows graze on Parker Ranch land just above the head of the fire off old Saddle Road on Aug. 3. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

Parker Ranch is forging ahead with plans for a large reforestation project on the slopes of Maunakea and reseeding thousands of acres of pasture destroyed by the largest fire to impact the operation in its 175-year history.

Approximately 37,000 acres of the 130,000-acre Parker Ranch were scorched in the fire that broke out July 30 off Mana Road, burning a total of 47,000 acres in South Kohala, said Dutch Kuyper, Parker Ranch CEO and president. The fire continued to smolder Tuesday with firefighters still dousing hotpots and flareups within its burn area.


“That basically means about 78% of the fire footprint is on Parker Ranch, and that is sort of overwhelming to think about,” Kuyper said Friday, explaining the fire burned about half of the 70,000 acres of the ranch’s pasture lands that range from 700 feet to 7,000 feet in elevation.

According to Kuyper, the ranch typically experiences one fire each year, which can vary in size with the most recent large fire occurring in 2015 at 10,000 acres.

Though about half of the grazing land has been temporarily lost, Kuyper estimated the impact on productivity at the ranch will be at most 20%.

“That particular section of Maunakea is slightly below average in terms of production, compared to all of our lands. Our Kohala lands are the richest resource for ranching on the island, it’s very productive land and so right now, the simple answer to the impact on production: about 20% of our pasture productivity is taken away from us,” he said. “We’ve been able to move those cattle to other pastures on Parker Ranch for now.”

However, it’s likely some of the 14,000 head of cattle, including several thousand grown for the local market, will have to be moved to other ranches for grazing, Kuyper said. Conversations have already began and a half-dozen ranches have been identified that could take up to few hundred animals each.

“We think in the short-term, meaning the next month or two, we’ll be able to work through this transition,” Kuyper said, explaining the ranch can also reduce herd size by sending cows to market or even exporting them to the mainland. “That’s not preferable, we’d like to do our best and maintain the herd size because that’s a major investment, it’s a major asset of a ranch.”

Kuyper hopes that within four to six months, the ranch will be able to resume grazing the impacted pastures, but that’s dependant on moisture and a successful reseeding, which is in the plans after the fire.

“There may be an opportunity to rethink some of the grasses based on the elevation, the different parts of the ranch that were affected by the fire,” he said, adding that only grass species already grown in the state would be utilized. “Our hope is to develop a rapid-response plan in the next couple of months to deploy that (reseeding).”

At the same time as the ranch is looking to regrow thousands of acres of grassland, it’s continuing to move forward with a project to restore native Hawaiian forests on roughly 3,300 acres at elevations between 6,200 feet and 7,700 feet.

Parker Ranch made forestry among its priorities in its most recent five-year strategic plan completed in 2018-19, Kuyper said.

“We accept the unique responsibility of one of Hawaii’s largest landowners and will prioritize forests among our various strategic priorities as part of our resiliency and sustainability goals. Forests play a vital role in the health of the environment. Forests are essential to preserve our endowment of critical elements in the ecosystem like water, soil, and the atmosphere. We are exploring many facets of forestry for Parker Ranch, including both cultivation and reforestation,” he said in a prepared statement. “We believe native forest restoration is a practical and actionable solution for tackling a variety of environmental challenges. The dedication of our lands for large scale reforestation aligns with our core values of sustainability and responsible land stewardship.”

Taking a “proactive proprietary approach” to manage its forests, Parker Ranch recently hired Zachary B.P. Judd, a forestry and conservation professional who’s spent most of his career on the management and protection of Hawaii Island’s expansive and diverse native ecosystems. Prior to joining Parker Ranch, Judd managed field operations in West Hawaii for the state Natural Area Reserves System.

In addition to adding an in-house forester, Parker Ranch engaged about two years ago Greg Asner, who is the director of Arizona State University’s Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science and creator of the Global Airborne Observatory, an aircraft equipped with advanced imaging technology, that collects an array of data such as species composition, forest health and above-ground carbon stock.

“It was important for us to get an informed view of all the lands and the forests and the various species that are on the land in aggregate,” Kuyper said. “To do that manually would be take years and a lot a of people.”

The data, which is still being processed, is needed to finalize the ranch’s forestry management plan. It will also help guide strategic decision-making on forest ecology and management and development of long-term sustainability and conservation plans.

“Part of that plan is being able to identify lands with the rainfall, the radiation, the elevation that are ideal for certain species and also to see where those species are thriving so that you can actually create a plan as to where those species might be propagated given where the available land is located,” Kuyper said.

Categorized as dry and high elevation, the initial lands identified by Parker Ranch for restoration run along a 6.7-mile boundary in a region that contains remnant pockets of mamane (Sophora chrysophylla), an endemic tree to the Hawaiian Islands and primary food source for the critically endangered palila (Loxioides bailleui).

Mamane is the dominant tree species in the higher elevation forests of the Mauna Kea Forest Reserve adjacent to the Parker Ranch lands and expanding the current elevational range of mamane into Parker Ranch lands will provide a more consistent food source for Hawaiian forest birds.

Mamane also has significance in Native Hawaiian culture and local history. In one notable account from 1882, Queen Emma made a trip to the top of Maunakea and Lake Wai’au with William Lindsey, a guide selected by John Parker to take her to the summit. The queen was protected from the rain in a shelter that Lindsey and her other attendants made from mamane branches. It is said that on the journey, Queen Emma gifted Lindsey with a Hawaiian name for his son, Kahalelaumamane (the mamane-leafed shelter).

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