hawaiian islands land trust: talking story on the land

HILTThe Hawaiian Islands Land Trust (HILT) was formed in 2011 with this simple mission: To protect the lands that sustain us for current and future generations. HILT is the result of a merger between Maui Coastal Land Trust, Kaua‘i Public Land Trust, O‘ahu Land Trust, and Hawai‘i Island Land Trust. Now, each county in Hawai‘i is represented by this strong and vibrant statewide land conservancy organization.

On Maui, there are 12 protected lands for which HILT holds a conservation easement, and an additional two areas that are owned outright by the organization. Each year HILT staff members offer several opportunities for the general public to visit and learn about these important cultural and archeological sites through their “Talk Story on the Land” environmental education series. According to Edward Sortwell Clement, Jr., HILT’s executive director, “The purpose of this program is to give the public the free opportunity to get out and walk on the lands we work to protect, and learn about those properties, so that people can better connect with nature and the time-sensitive land conservation work of HILT. This educational program reflects HILT’s belief that experiential education is the most powerful form of environmental education.”

Today, I’m participating in a hike led by HILT Conservation Director Scott Fisher at ‘Auwahi on the barren, windswept leeward slope of Haleakala. In 2009, the Erdman family, owners of ‘Ulupalakua Ranch, made a historic land preservation agreement by preserving over 11,000 acres here, the largest-ever voluntary easement donation in the state of Hawai‘i. “Fifty years ago, I was surveying the island for development sights when I ended up in Wailea, and had the chance to look up to see the marvelous green hills of ‘Ulupalakua. Little did I know I’d be saving it someday,” Pardee Erdman, owner of ‘Ulupalakua Ranch, said at the time.

This is also the site of ‘Auwahi Wind Farm, a joint venture between BP Wind Energy, Sempra US Gas & Power, and ‘Ulupalakua Ranch. The wind farm is definitely situated in the right place—today it’s blowing so hard we have to gather closely around Scott to hear him!

We begin by ascending Pu‘uhokukano, a steep rise where the wind gusts are so powerful, hitting us sideways, that I clutch my notebook and pen to my chest, and envy the hikers who thought to bring walking sticks. Once at the top, Scott tells us ‘Auwahi is the westernmost ahupua‘a in the moku (district) of Kahikinui (which may mean “Great Tahiti”). From 1,000 feet in elevation upward, residents farmed, primarily sweet potatoes and dry-land kalo, and at sea level they fished. In between was a huge void, due to the area being severely drought prone. “‘Auwahi receives only 21 inches of rain per year, with 19 inches falling during the wet season from Kona storms, and 2 inches during the dry season,” says Scott. “Residents of this ahupua‘a had to have good relations with ‘ohana in other areas for trading goods.”

But ‘Auwahi’s redeeming quality, besides being a culturally important area, is its significance as one of the most intact dryland forest areas in the State of Hawai‘i. Dryland forests are among the most threatened of Hawaiian ecosystems. Ethnobotanically, dryland forests were invaluable to early Hawaiians. Many of the 50 tree species found at ‘Auwahi had specific uses: 19 were used in medicines, 13 in making specific tools, 13 in canoe construction, 8 in making bark cloth, and 8 to make dyes ranging from pink to blue to a rich yellow-orange. At least 7 species have spiritual significance and were used in religious and cultural ceremonies. Other miscellaneous uses ranged from fire to bird lime, to a fish narcotizing agent. There is tremendous interest within both the Hawaiian community in restoring tracts of dryland forest. However, to date there are no major success stories for dryland forest restoration in Hawai‘i.

As we walk down a trail towards the ocean, we come upon a large grove of wiliwili trees. Wiliwili means “repeatedly twisted” in Hawaiian, and refers to the seedpods, which twist open to reveal the seeds. Scott tells us wiliwili was nearly wiped out during the last decade by a gall wasp infestation. “That would have devastated this area,” he says. “Another wasp was brought in from New Zealand to successfully eradicate the gall wasp. It’s exciting to see this much wiliwili, as there’s not much of it remaining in Hawai‘i.” Wiliwili wood was prized by Hawaiians for its low density, but immense strength, and was used to make surfboards.

Farther down the trail, Scott points out a native naio tree which, he says, were used to make digging sticks. “It’s also known as ‘bastard sandalwood,’ because it has a scent,” he says. “During the sandalwood era, when supplies became depleted, naio was used to supplement shipments. This is quite possibly why one of the neighboring ahupua‘a was called Kanaio.”

We come to the top of a hill where Scott points out the remains of one of the largest ancient structures in the area. “Structures in ‘Auwahi are consistent with Kahikinui area construction, with dwellings being built on the ridgelines, and swales reserved for farming,” he says. Scott points out an ‘uhaloa shrub, which has tremendous medicinal properties. In ancient times, the bark of the taproots was chewed for sore throats. Whole plants and/or roots were boiled and juiced into a restorative, bitter tonic for fatigue or general debility.

We hang a left and take a detour through scrubland. Scott points out a variety of African acacia that bears a prickly yellow flower whose essence is used to make Chanel #5 perfume. “In yet another failed industry attempt on Maui, someone thought it would be a good idea to bring this plant here,” he says ruefully. Interestingly, though, he says the paniolo used to squeeze a sap-like substance from this plant to use like Chapstick. Another fascinating plant we encounter is natural indigo, whose seeds were crushed by ancient Hawaiians to produce a deep blue dye used for kapa making.

The Hawaiian white poppy, or pua kala, also has a presence at ‘Auwahi. It, too, was used for medicinal purposes: the seeds and sap of the stalk were used as a narcotic and analgesic for toothaches, neuralgia and ulcers; the sap was also used to treat warts.

After a lunch break atop a windy ridge, we pass nine wind turbines on our way back to the parking lot, bringing us back to present day. The owners of ‘Auwahi Wind Farm commissioned a Cultural Impact Assessment before proceeding with the project. Extensive research conducted during the assessment produced this conclusion: “Judging from the large amount of heiau and burial caves found [here], there must have been a large population occupying ‘Auwahi.” The roadway through the wind farm was configured to provide for a ten-foot buffer zone between it and the burial caves.

Scott summarizes the challenges faced at ‘Auwahi and other island treasures: “When native species decline and non-native species increase, it makes the perfect environment for invasives to take over. Our island eco-systems are all so fragile.”

HILT, along with other groups such as ‘Auwahi Restoration Project and the Leeward Haleakala Watershed Restoration Partnership, works hard to conserve, protect, and restore our precious resources not only for us, but for future generations.

–heidi pool



Hawaiian Islands Land Trust Talk Story on the Land series of free public environmental education events.


At various conservation sites on Maui.


Schedule for the remainder of 2015:

Saturday, July 11
Waihe‘e Coastal Dunes & Wetlands Refuge

Saturday, August 29
Experience Waihe‘e by Moonlight

Saturday, November 14
Nu‘u Refuge


Reservations essential: 244-5263; malia@hilt.org.



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