Story by Julia Steele
Photos by Elyse Butler
In 1995, Sam ‘Ohu Gon III, along with a dozen or so other ecologists, set out to create a picture of what the Hawaiian Islands looked like before a single human being had set foot upon them. The scientists knew that history had taken the Islands through amazing change in a relatively short time: Two thousand years ago the Islands had some of the highest rates of endemic biodiversity on Earth; they were home to unique natural wonders and not a trace of Homo sapiens— a radically different landscape from the Hawai‘i of today.
The scientists were ambitious. They wanted to pinpoint the location of every native ecosystem—in essence, to draw a complete map of what the Islands looked like before we all showed up. In the modern landscape, wetlands have been filled in, dryland forests burned and mesic forests cut, but even with all of the change, there are echoes of Hawai‘i’s original richness. Gon, senior scientist and cultural advisor for The Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i, remembers finding a massive native lonomea tree on the edge of a subdivision in Niu Valley, a living relic that would itself have been hundreds of years old. Out on rough ‘a‘a lava flows, too, there are pockets of plant life that have escaped the ravages of cattle and fire. Old place names offer clues, too, like the fact that Honolulu was once called Kou—in reference to the vast groves of kou trees that once grew there.
The ecologists spent five years researching and refining their map. They honed their ability to discern entire ecosystems from a few tattered remains and trained their eyes to see the signatures of native vegetation. “First you learned to recognize a tree when you were standing right under it,” recalls Gon. “Then you learned to spot it on the ridgeline, then from the air and finally from a satellite photograph.” By the end the scientists had mapped some two hundred ecosystems spread across the island chain — terrestrial, aquatic and subterranean—everything from ‘a‘ali‘i shrubland to koa and ‘ohi‘a montane forest. And it wasn’t enough to simply identify an ecosystem, says Gon: “The challenge was that if you’d described a vegetation type, you had to say where it was and what islands it existed on.”
The first comprehensive map of prehuman Hawai‘i was unveiled in 2000, with the two hundred ecosystems condensed into ten broad categories. Placed alongside a contemporary map of the Islands, it showed that across the archipelago much of the original landscape had been displaced by what Gon calls “the human footprint”; on O‘ahu, the most changed island, the displacement rate was 85 percent. “We went from these shadings of greens and browns” representing natives, “to everything in the lowlands turning pink,” representing the human footprint, says Gon. The map quickly became an invaluable research tool — but happy as Gon was with its creation, the project of mapping change was far from over, for him at least. A big part of the picture remained unseen. “For every before-and-after story,” he says, “you have to tell the story of what happened in between.”