The Lost Ecosystem of Maui’s Ancient Forests
As a photographer I have always loved trees. Living on Maui for close to 20 years I have seen and photographed hundreds of different kinds of trees. It is my job to then figure out what they are in order to caption the images. As I work mostly in the visitor industry, I am often on assignment for Maui tour companies. I have learned an incredible amount about Maui’s flora and fauna from having a tour guide along to answer any questions I may have. This has been invaluable because I can always look up what kind of tree I’ve just photographed but to hear first hand the story of WHAT and WHY these trees are here and what they were used for in old Hawaiʻi is always fascinating to me. Here are some of my favorite trees and their stories.
The story goes that the sandalwood trade began in the early 1800’s shortly after the discovery of the islands by Captain Cook. At that time the slopes of Haleakala from sea level to the tree line at about 8000’ elevation were completely covered by a 3 layered rainforest canopy of diverse trees of koa, ohia and sandalwood. The original Hawaiian sandalwood tree is believed to be root parasitic in that it grows and and spreads in association with other trees such as the native Koa and Ohi’a trees.
These trees created a dynamic forest which captured moisture coming off the ocean, creating it’s own cloud layer which fed a vibrant cloudforest. The forest captured rain that created the deep gulches and valleys of Haleakala’s leeward slopes. Native Hawaiians terraced these slopes to growing sweet potatoes and taro. The remnants of these terraces, many of which are overgrown with eucalyptus and other invasive species, can still be seen today.
By 1811 trade ships began arriving regularly in Hawaiʻi and several sea captains were involved in a thriving sandalwood business with the Chinese. By trading shiploads of sandalwood for guns, cannons, ammunition and even western ships Kamehameha was able to acquire his own fleet of ships and modern armament he used to conquer all the islands, thus solidifying his rule which created the Kingdom of Hawaii. Kamehameha continued to trade with the British and Americans until his death in 1819. His son Liholiho (Kamehameha II) fell into debt with the westerners and the first general tax in Hawaiʻi was imposed…paid with sandalwood.
Kamehameha’s relationship with the British and the American traders may be why the Hawaiian flag is a combination of the Union Jack and red, white and blue stripes, thus appeasing both countries. The king was a shrewd and beloved leader who, by unifying the islands, brought peace to what some estimate was 100 years of war.
By 1830 the Sandalwood trade collapsed as the forests on every island were clear cut and even burned to find the last trees by smell. This deforestation resulted in the loss of all remaining seedlings and left only a few remote and inaccessible areas as the last remnants of a once great and expansive ecosystem.
Today the slopes of Haleakala are quite bare compared to ancient times but a new generation of conservationists are make great strides to restore Maui’s native forest. These reforestation projects hope to bring back much of the lost flora and fauna, including many endangered birds and insects. It is a herculean effort that will require many years of propagation and transplanting.
One of first zipline courses in the country is in upcountry Maui. Skyline Eco-adventures started in 2002 and one of their goals as a company was and still is native reforestation. I was hired to shoot the tour and the planting efforts performed by local volunteer youth groups. They have now planted well over 300 koa trees along the course and in 2010 they somehow got their hands on a sandalwood sapling. To see these trees in the ground is inspiring considering it has been close to 200 years since a sandalwood tree has been seen on this part Haleakala.
If you’d like to volunteer and restore some of this ancient ecosystem while on vacation visit our volunteer page.
Mahalo & Aloha Nui Loa!