Waikoloa Beach Resort

Waikoloa Beach Resort

The Gathering Place of the Kohala Coast

Naupaka News

January/February 2015

Free Wiliwili The Waikoloa Dry Forest Initative

Free Wiliwili The Waikoloa Dry Forest Initative

Hawai`i Island is uniquely beautiful, with its vast lava fields of black and brown, its perfect beaches and bays, rolling green upcountry, and towering mountains. There’s nowhere else like it on earth.

But as lovely as it is today, the landscape looked much different 200 years ago, when much of the upcountry was blanketed by thick sandalwood forests, and many other genus of trees flourished on the mountain slopes. Among the most magnificent of the endemic flora is the wiliwili tree, which was once found in abundance in the drier, lower elevations.

Once common on the terrain now occupied by Waikoloa Resort’s golf courses and the dry forest areas surrounding Waikoloa Village a few miles mauka, the lands on which the wiliwili trees thrived became degraded over time by ungulates (hooved animals such as goats, pigs, and cattle), invasive plants, fire, and dumping.


Enter Waikoloa Dry Forest Initiative, a group whose mission is to “preserve, protect and restore a remnant native Hawaiian dry forest ecosystem through land management, outreach, education and grass roots advocacy.” Founded 10 years ago by a group of concerned residents, including Beverly Brand and members of the Outdoor Circle, a 75- year lease for 275 acres was procured from the Waikoloa Village Association to create a sanctuary where the wiliwili trees and other dry forest species could be protected and restored. Located just southwest of Waikoloa Village, the land was fenced off, and restoration work was begun. “The fence helped get rid of the ungulates,” says Jen Lawson, Executive Director of Waikoloa Dry Forest Initiative. “That was the first important step.”

Next, a squad of volunteers started working on cleaning up the land, and readying it for replanting. “Wiliwili trees were populous on the island at one time,” Lawson says, “but we’ve lost about half of the entire population here in Waikoloa over the last 10 years, and likely the same overall.” She speculates that there are around 60 trees left in the preserve, maybe 200 in the Waikoloa zone, and no more than 1,000 on the island, but stresses that because the trees are not protected no data has been collected.

In addition to degradation of habitat, Lawson says many of the trees are simply dying of old age. With a maximum life span of around 350 years, if no seedlings (Lawson calls the young trees “keiki”) are sprouting, the species becomes even further threatened.


Under Lawson’s guidance, the Waikoloa Dry Forest Initiative has been busy planting trees, and not just the wiliwili. As they worked the land, the group also discovered several rare uhiuhi trees, so they started replanting those as well.

“These trees can survive in super-harsh environments,” Lawson says. “They just need a little help from us. Both of these species were significant in Hawaiian culture, so it’s important for them to survive. The uhiuhi tree was used in making tools, weaponry, and housing. It is a dense wood … heavier than water. The wiliwili tree is super light, and was used in making the ama (float) on outrigger canoes and surfboards.”

A field biologist by training, Lawson says the group’s goal is to one day improve access to the site by improving the road, as well as have the preserve open for self-guided tours. She also hopes to construct an interpretive center with staff on-site.

For the time being, “We try to accommodate people as much as we can,” she says. “We interact with all the schools, and our Future Foresters Program brings kids in every other Saturday. We’ve also had groups from the resorts come up by appointment … a group from Hilton Grand Vacations was up recently and really enjoyed the experience.”


Lawson is also passionate about getting both wiliwili and uhiuhi wood (from dead trees only) into the hands of artists so that, much like koa, the qualities and beauty of each tree will come to be further appreciated. Legendary Hawaiian surfer, surf historian, and Olympian Duke Kahanamoku (1890- 1968) once noted that the olo (18- 24 feet long) board designs of the old Hawaiian ali‘i were often made from the wood of wiliwili trees.

Though the task of restoring the dry forests of Waikoloa is a big one, Lawson is optimistic. “With a rainy year like 2014,” she says, “more than 500 keiki came up out of the ground and about one-third of them made it!”

That ray of hope, along with the additional exposure and support the preserve received last September during the Wiliwili Festival — scheduled to coincide with one of the best flowering seasons in recent memory — and Lawson feels the group’s efforts may be starting to turn a corner toward recovery and restoration of the dry forest.

“I tell the school kids who come and visit us here that, ‘If something is bothering you in the environment, do something about it!’” she says.

With positive examples like Lawson and the Waikoloa Dry Forest Initiative leading the way, the future for Hawai`i’s keiki — both human and tree — has been planted.