For the last few weeks, a large excavator has been digging hole after hole on the steep slopes of state forest reserves in the Koke‘e area of Kaua‘i. Some 3,000 acres of land were scorched during a series of wildfires there during the summer of 2012. The excavator is preparing the ground for the hand planting of 20,000 foot-tall koa seedlings.
“The site preparation, with the excavator, has been going on for the last three weeks. Now we’re planting the koa seedlings one block at a time. Each block is 2-3 acres in size. The first day of out-planting we put 1,000 seedlings in and despite hotter and dryer than normal weather conditions they appear to be doing well,” said Dustyn Hirota, of Forest Solutions Inc., a Big Island company hired to do the planting on Koke‘e.
Each day, Hirota, the company’s operations forester, has been leading three to four workers to replant the seedlings. The koa tree seeds were collected on site and then sent to Native Nursery LLC on Maui, where they were grown and carefully tended before being shipped by barge back to Kaua‘i, according to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
The 20,000 seedlings will cover a total of 50 acres, with 400-500 trees per acre.
“This is an unprecedented attempt on state lands to reforest using native species. We hope that in time, there will be a thriving mixed-tree plantation that will serve many purposes including habitat for endangered plants and animals, forest product revenues and hunting and other recreational opportunities,” said Sheri Mann, State Forester with the DLNR Division of Forestry and Wildlife.
The first phase of the Koke‘e Area Restoration and Reforestation Project involved improving access roads and clearing hazardous trees.
In the second phase grass seed was applied across the burned areas.
During the third phase of replanting, once the seedlings arrive at Koke‘e, they are kept under shade cloth until they’re ready to be dipped into a special gel that helps keep the root balls moist and enhances growth. Then the workers place the seedlings in canvas bags and carry them up and down hills to the holes the excavator dug. Additional digging is sometimes necessary to create the right size puka (hole) for each plant. It’s then covered with soil, which is tamped down to help the young koa trees stay upright in windy conditions.
“Hawaii has never experienced fires quite like these, followed by this type of recovery and restoration,” DLNR Chair Suzanne Case said. “We hope in not too many years the scars left by this series of wildfires will no longer be evident, thanks to the replanting efforts and everything that led up to it.”