Story by Paul Wood
Photos by Elyse Butler
For the time being Bryon Stevens is stuck in the wilderness on the back side of Haleakala, leaning against a Jeep Cherokee that has vapor-locked—again—after skidding its way up the mountain on the crudest possible gravel road. The Jeep bears the Hawai‘i state seal on either side, and it’s carrying quarts of motor oil that Bryon’s crew needs to keep climbing the mountain, killing trees. And though he’s temporarily hung up and disconnected—no cellphone coverage out here in Kanaio—looking out over a landscape of dry scrub and broken lava, Bryon seems happy. “Actually, things are pretty good right now.”
By “things” he means the 1,400-acre Kanaio Natural Area Reserve that surrounds him. He also means NARS, the State of Hawai‘i’s Natural Area Reserve System, his employer. Beginning in 1973 with a Maui coastal site called ‘Ahihi-Kina‘u, the state has been gradually setting aside precious chunks of public land—land that epitomizes some of Hawai‘i’s most sensitive and unique ecosystems—and affording them the highest level of protection possible. By law these tracts may never be trampled, browsed, commercialized or smothered in weeds. Their boundaries draw a theoretical defensive line against the loss of rare wilderness. Today there are twenty such reserves, most in high mountain reaches. On Hawai‘i island there’s Pu‘u o ‘Umi, the wet summit of Kohala that feeds water to Waipi‘o and Waimanu Valleys. There’s the Manuka, which includes more than twenty-five thousand acres of subalpine land with patches of primordial forest and unsurveyed lava tubes. There’s the the strange Mauna Kea Ice Age NAR, with its wind-dominated desert and unique alpine lake. Kaua‘i reserves include two pristine valleys on the Na Pali coast, home to some of the rarest plants, birds and stream animals on Earth. Moloka‘i’s Olokui NAR is a mountain plateau so remote it has yet to be discovered by wild goats. Among O‘ahu’s three NARs is Mount Ka‘ala, the island’s highest peak, home to a bog where native plants grow in terrarium-scale dwarf forms.
Some reserves get pretty much left alone, but most, like Kanaio, require a punishing amount of labor to manage—building fences, exterminating junk forests, repairing the damage done by cattle, deer, goats and pigs. Relatively few people do all that work, people like Bryon Stevens, who is responsible for all the reserves in Maui County—nearly twenty thousand acres in total. At the moment he is managing both the desk-work and the fieldwork, but he’d rather be out here, broken-down Jeep notwithstanding. “I’m a field person,” he says. “I refuse to grow up and become an administrator.”
One glance at Bryon will prove that he’s not kidding. His T-shirt and khakis are wine-stained with earth, and so are his arms. His turned-around baseball cap, from which his thick hair pokes like tawny cornhusks, must have been red once, who knows when. Only his boots are shiny new, but that’s only because he works in landscapes that destroy footwear almost monthly. Everyone you talk to on the state level will tell you that Bryon works from dawn into dark for the NARS. Bryon himself is understated about it. “I get paid to go camping,” he jokes.
When he first came to the Kanaio reserve ten years ago, he was one lone warrior on foot facing a mountainside. “This was a sea of rubbish,” he says. “I wasn’t sure we could pull this off.” He means botanical rubbish—trees such as wattle and christmasberry, invasives that inexorably crush out all competition. (In good soil an acre of wattle trees will grow so densely that not even a chicken can get through it.) At risk was one of the last vestiges of a native Hawaiian dryland forest ecosystem, an incredibly diverse landscape that once flourished on the lee slopes of our mountains, a haven for birds, plants and insects found nowhere else.
One example: the Blackburn sphinx moth. The largest endemic insect in the Islands, it was thought to be extinct until 1984, when a small population was rediscovered right here. The larva is as big as a sausage; the adult, the size of a small bird. It evolved to feed on the native ‘aiea tree, a kind of woody tomato. Today there are precious few ‘aiea left in the reserve. Fortunately the moth has taken to dining instead on tree tobacco, a roadside weed that Bryon and crew tolerate in the reserve out of respect for the moth, which was the first Hawaiian insect to be put on the federal endangered species list.
This is an austere landscape, broken and wind-scoured, not one for the postcard trade, but beautiful to those who appreciate its rarity. The native birds are gone now, and no one can say what Kanaio’s future will be. But at least now it has a fighting chance.