Story by Janice Crowl
Photos by Jack Wolford
A cool mist veils the forest at six thousand feet on the eastern slope of Mauna Kea. Some of the ‘ohi‘a trees here are two hundred feet tall and six hundred years old, and the understory is thick with native plants. It’s a primeval landscape, as close to what Hawai‘i might have looked like a thousand years ago as anywhere in the Islands. Baron Horiuchi knows this place well — as the only horticulturalist in the nation working for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, it’s his green thumb that’s partly responsible for the forest’s preservation. Not only that: He’s helped take thirty-three thousand acres of abused former pastureland at Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge and turn it back into the native forest that’s there today. To that habitat have returned the rarest of rare native birds seen almost nowhere else in Hawai‘i. The refuge is one of the state’s few remaining sources of the birds’ favorite foods: native plants such as koa, ‘ohi‘a, pukiawe, ‘ohelo, pilo, ‘olapa, as well as endangered plants such as oha wai, haha, native mints and raspberries.
At the moment Baron’s leading a volunteer crew that’s just finished planting five hundred seedlings under the canopy of a fifteen-year-old koa grove. It’s the end of a long day, and they’re sweaty, grubby and
exhausted, but they’re happy to stay a little longer for their reward: a chance to view those rare native birds.
“There it is!” someone whispers as loud as a whisper will go.
It’s an ‘i‘iwi bobbing among the treetops, flashing its fiery red plumage and sipping nectar from lehua blossoms with its curved beak. “This is why we do this,” Baron whispers. “For the birds—and to give back to the land. I love this land.”
Native forest restoration efforts like the one at Hakalau have their critics: Conventional wisdom once had it that native plants would never grow back because they were less hardy than the introduced species that had spread across the slopes of Mauna Kea. But Baron’s alchemy with plants is based on years of research and passionate determination. And he’s had help: For the past sixteen years Baron has been cultivating community involvement to keep some of the world’s rarest plants going in a habitat not seen anywhere else.