Before The Forest, Dreams

FLUX Hawaii





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It’s noon on a Wednesday in November.

Jeff Dunster, CEO of Hawaiian Legacy Hardwoods, sits cross-legged on the floor of his sprawling, gated mansion in Nu‘uanu Valley, leaning back on locked elbows.


“We’re down to about 10 percent of what we had with koa forests just a century ago,” he says. “I’ve been [in Hawai‘i] a few decades, long enough to see the change, and it’s really not that long as time goes. When you see how quickly [the forest] goes away, you realize that your grandkids may not see any of this, and it’s kind of sobering. I also was part of the problem because I love koa furniture.”


A look around the room confirms this—on the coffee table are koa bowls, koa jewelry boxes, and koa pens. Dunster hops to his feet, goes to a cabinet in the corner, and pulls out a shimmering ‘ukulele banded with deep brown ripples. It is made from woods grown by Dunster’s nonprofit, the Hawaiian Legacy Reforestation Initiative: koa, ‘ōhi‘a lehua, ko‘oko‘olau, and ‘iliahi. 


In 2006, Dunster and his business partner, Darrell Fox, leased a 1,200-acre parcel of Hawai‘i Island’s 10,000-acre Kūka‘iau Ranch. Gathering funding from investors who recognized the exponential value of lumber, they began planting koa trees, prized for their rarity and quality of wood, for future harvest. Acting like the canopy formed by towering koa trees, the duo’s investment-driven Hawaiian Legacy Hardwoods business encouraged understory growth, which now includes the nonprofit reforestation initiative and the for-profit companies Hawaiian Legacy Tours and Legacy Carbon.


Over the last 10 years, the conglomerate has planted more than 300,000 endemic trees, and it is set to plant 1.5 million more on the ranch and around the state thanks to recent commitments to the Hawaiian Legacy Reforestation Initiative by Four Seasons Hualālai and the Hawai‘i Convention Center. These companies and others, like Kona Brewing Company and ALTRES, are drawn to the opportunity to support a green cause through tax-deductible donations. Other companies looking to offset their carbon output, such as Paradise Helicopters, buy carbon credits through Legacy Carbon, which supports the koa forests that naturally, and quantifiably, sequester carbon dioxide through photosynthesis.


About 75 percent of Hawaiian Legacy’s property is now dedicated to reforestation, which manifests in “legacy forests,” plots of trees sponsored by individuals, groups, or companies, and is maintained by the Hawaiian Legacy team. If a “legacy tree” dies prematurely, its wood is donated to local artisans like luthier Joseph Souza, who made Dunster’s ‘ukulele.


“It’s not for sale at any price. However, if you plant a thousand trees,” Dunster says, referring to trees purchased as a special Family Forest package, “we’ll give the ‘ukulele to you for free. Three have gone already—that’s 3,000 more trees that are going up on that mountain.”


Dunster points into the ‘ukulele’s soundhole to a computer chip that traces the instrument back to one of its original sources, a koa tree that was planted with a radio-frequency identification tag alongside it that recorded its location, conditions at planting, and relationship with other trees. Every tree the company plants is tracked this way.


As cutting edge as the project is, the original foray into the woods began as a retirement plan for Dunster and Fox, who worked together in finance, doing mergers and acquisitions and ecologically focused consulting, for 30 years. Dunster says starting a forest was “probably as far away from what we were doing as you could possibly get, because it’s all about working with your hands and your back and a sharp shovel.” For a couple of earth-friendly finance guys, their business had to be ecologically and economically sustainable—something that had also motivated Munro on Lāna‘i. “We realized that the model that has been used for a hundred and some odd years doesn’t work anymore,” says Dunster, referring to the Western method of timber forest management. “So we set out to try and design a way to put back the forests and have them financially support themselves and those that are working in the forest.”

Dunster and Fox have received help working in the forest, too, from dedicated employees, schools and youth groups, a growing number of tourists who take tree-planting tours, and writers like me eager to tell Hawaiian Legacy’s story. A few days before meeting Dunster, photographer Bryce Johnson and I visited Hawaiian Legacy’s headquarters, located behind a dense curtain of bluegum eucalyptus in a small repurposed ranch house in ‘Umikoa Village, about an hour north of Hilo.


When we arrived, a lone ‘io, or Hawaiian hawk, was making broad circles in the sky, floating on updrafts as the morning fog burned off. Johnson and I soon learned about the ‘io and other endangered, forest-dependent birds through a video about an ‘ahu ‘ula and mahiole, or feather cloak and helmet—the production of which was sponsored by Hawaiian Legacy Hardwoods. In the video, master featherwork artist Rick San Nicolas was shown weaving more than 250,000 pheasant feathers into intricate netting, replicating pieces that traditionally relied on feathers from the now extinct ʻōʻō and mamo and the endangered ‘i‘iwi and ‘apapane—all forest companions of the ‘io prior to Western contact.


On the planting tour, we zipped through the rolling grid of the burgeoning forest in yellow ATV buggies loaded with koa saplings—a decided improvement upon Munro’s mule-packed forest. As all tours do, we paused at the tall, sparse “Lone Koa,” one of the last old-growth trees that survived the era when Kūka‘iau Ranch was clear-cut in the 1880s for cattle ranching. A hub for wedding photo shoots, the old koa is surrounded by an artfully weed-whacked heart.


Further along, we saw the ‘io alight on a scraggly, skyward limb of a “crawling tree,” a koa that has fallen, put down new roots, and pulled itself across the ground during the last century or so. Maybe the ‘io instinctively prefers the trusty old-growth trees its ancestors hunted among in the days when these lands were King Kamehameha’s personal koa forest—a time of sustainable harvest, when sandalwood thrived in the understory. As our ATVs passed the bird’s perch, it gave a quick glance, then looked on unflinchingly toward its future meal, perhaps knowing that our rumbling wheels would scare up mice from the grass.


Upon arriving at the year’s planting field, we were handed spades to break the black soil and make room for saplings whose topmost leaves had begun transforming from bipinnate into tough, scythe-like phyllodes. Kneeling over his small pit, Johnson planted his tree for his mother, who passed away last year. I planted mine for my fiancée. This information was input into radio-frequency identification tags speared into the ground alongside the trees. With a few handfuls of soil and an anointing by water from a gourd, our names and dedications were suddenly embedded in this earth and in the digital footprints of these trees’ lives.


All tour-goers partake in this ritual. The technology that accompanies every tree the company plants makes this forest the most intricately mapped in the world. Each tagged sapling adds data to Fox and Dunster’s experiment in undoing man’s past follies and neutralizing his present addictions. Nearby, other owners of Kūka‘iau Ranch’s subdivided parcels continue to raise cattle. 


“Everybody’s losing money on cattle, which is unfortunate, because I like hamburger,” Dunster says. “[Reforestation] could be an option where these family-owned ranches can still … do ranching. If they take a part of their lands and do forestry, that would cover the shortfall,” he says, his words echoing Hosmer’s exhortation to the sugar planters a century ago. With revenue streams coming from tours, single-tree plantings priced at $60 to $100, timber investments costing about $12,000 for 100 trees, and windfall deals for large-scale carbon-offset plantings, Hawaiian Legacy’s many entities are establishing a model for the future.


Like the crawling koa tree moving to better soil, Hawaiian Legacy is gradually shifting its focus to reforestation and selling carbon credits, which work in tandem. Half-million-tree deals with companies like Four Seasons Hualālai have vaulted Hawaiian Legacy to the forefront of ecotourism. That image is helped by Legacy Carbon, the only carbon-offset company in the United States certified by the Gold Standard, an international agency backed by the World Wildlife Fund. With Paradise Helicopters’ recent purchase of carbon credits from Legacy Carbon, tour-takers can now neutralize their flights’ carbon emissions for a $6 to $8 fee. But the sense of adventure conjured by “ecotourism” dulls a bit at the Four Seasons, where guests simply check a box to add a small charge to their room, which helps the hotel meet its reforestation commitment. As its for-profit carbon credit and tour branches gain popularity and financial success, Hawaiian Legacy helps usher in a pay-as-you-go mentality among industries with bad ecological track records, which now have pathways into the future that require little fundamental change. Carbon offset equals guilt offset.


Dunster and Fox’s programs present a brave new world of economic opportunity in sustainability, and they are racking up awards for their endeavors. But the ‘io doesn’t care about the accolades; it just needs the trees. Fortunately, Dunster and Fox plan to keep on planting them, though it remains to be seen whether their multi-limbed model will ultimately break down old habits, or sprout new ones.

Source: FLUX Hawaii

Joy Miyamoto