My Turn: Hawaii’s rich biological heritage

Over the past few years, I have had the privilege of working alongside conservationists from a number of different local organizations, all of whom are dedicated to safeguarding Hawaii’s biological heritage. By biological heritage, I refer to the life, both plant and animal, that makes Hawaii Hawaii. These organisms have developed alongside the Hawaiian archipelago and have shaped the ecology, landscape, and culture of Hawaii. I have been very fortunate in my life in that I have been able to learn and grow from our forests, and anyone who lives in Hawaii benefits from their existence.

However, we are now at a time when the populations of many native trees are declining.

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From the olapa of the rainforests to the wiliwili of the drylands, Hawaii is home to a wide variety of native trees. Many native trees, such as the well known ‘ohi’a, act as “keystone species,” organisms that play a central role in supporting entire ecosystems by providing food and habitat for other organisms. For humans, native forests play a critical role in our day-to-day life by acting as “sponges” that draw in moisture and support the watersheds from which we get the water that supplies our taps. If you turned on a sink today it is likely that the reservoir your water comes from is sourced from native forests on the slopes of one of our Island’s mountains.

Beyond their ecological and utilitarian importance, native trees play a significant role in Hawaiian culture, with trees like ‘ohi’a and lama playing especially important roles in hula, la’au lapa’au (medicine), and traditional crafting Unfortunately, a number of factors have reduced native tree populations. A combination of habitat loss, over-harvest, and impacts from invasive species have led to reduced populations of many native tree species.

However, there are steps that we can take within our communities to counteract this decline.

The challenge of preserving Hawaii’s biological diversity is being] undertaken by a number of nonprofits, community organizations, and government agencies, but as individuals, one of the easiest and most direct actions we can take is to plant native trees within our personal property. There are a number of benefits to this practice, both in terms of conservation and to our communities. In terms of conservation, planting native trees on our own private property serves to protect them from many of the dangers they would face in the wild, as threats like invasive, hoofed mammals such as feral goats or hogs are more easily managed within urban areas. In this way, we are able to cultivate “pocket populations” of native trees within our neighborhoods.

Growing native trees within our own neighborhoods preserves native biodiversity while simultaneously increasing the representation of native trees in our communities and strengthening our sense of connection to nature. Research has linked green spaces in communities with greater psychological well-being, with a preference by Hawaii residents for native species. Moreover, time spent planting and tending trees outdoors is time spent away from screens, and a good way to socialize with others while engaging both our bodies and our minds.

Those interested in planting with natives can find native trees at the Kamuela State Tree nursery or at local conservation focused events such as the annual Wiliwili Festival in Waikoloa. Those interested in learning more about Hawaiian plants and engaging in active conservation efforts can consider looking into volunteer opportunities with local conservation organizations such as The Kohala Center, Waikoloa Dry Forest Initiative, or the Mauna Kea Forest Restoration Project. All of which provide incredible opportunities to connect not only with nature, but also with your community.

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Hawaii’s native trees are our biological heritage, and we are made wealthy by their existence. Let us aloha ‘aina (care for the land) and cultivate ‘aina momona (abundance) by preserving our natural resources the same way that they preserve us.

Ethan Souza is a resident of Waimea.