Issue 13.5: October/November 2010

Koa Cache

Story by Roland Gilmore

Photos by Jack Wolford

 

Stan Hulama Jr.

“How’s that koa, brah?” says Stanford “Puggy” Hulama, grinning as his rubber slippers crunch along a gravel-floored Quonset hut on the outskirts of Hilo. Outside there’s only pasture and then rainforest; no signage, no name, nothing but the fenced off, unpaved road that begins out back of the Hulama family compound. Puggy’s place has no regular hours, and you’d never find it without calling for directions … and if it’s raining, you might want to ask Puggy to let you ride shotgun in his four-wheeler over the last quarter mile.

 

Its location might be rustic, but the Big Island Koa Company is (so to speak) no backwoods enterprise. They operate largely by word of mouth (their website, bigislandkoacompany.com, is a recent addition), but the Hulama family—the business also employs wife Linda and son Stan, Jr.—has an international clientele of luthiers and craftsmen, carpenters and furniture makers, bowl turners and sculptors and pretty much everyone in between. Recently they shipped an order to the East Coast for a traditionalist bent on making a wooden surfboard.

 

Surrounding Puggy and Linda is a portion of their inventory: somewhere in the range of 20,000 board feet of milled, kiln-dried wood—all of it koa—stacked three rows deep, floor to ceiling on both sides of the hut. There are boards of all lengths, from one to twelve feet; large chunks for bowl turners; four-by-four inch posts. Several thousand feet more sit outside, air-drying in uniform, head-high stacks arranged throughout the pasture. While there are other native wood wholesalers and retailers in the Islands, the Hulamas sell only koa, and this is one of world’s largest single collections of it. A good portion of the stock falls into what the national hardwood industry defines as top-of-the-line “grade A,” though the Hulamas market it using categories better known to Hawai‘i wood enthusiasts: select, select curl, full curl, premium curl, stress curl, velvet, fiddleback … each describing a variant pattern of koa’s distinctive, much-prized grain. “Stress curl,” says Linda, pointing to a board with a yellow “SC” chalked across the wavy, vertical grain. “That’s what the ‘ukulele guys like.”

 


 

 

To appreciate the value and magnitude of this cache, you need to know something about the tree. Acacia koa is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands, having developed over the millennia into a species found naturally nowhere else on earth. Within the Islands, however, there is a great deal of variation: Though it is found on all the main islands, the largest trees grow on the Big Island—fifty to eighty feet tall for old-growth trees. Some even reach well over 100 feet, with a diameter of up to twelve feet. Over time various stands have adapted to their specific elevations and climates, which means that seeds from one area won’t necessarily grow in another. Cut wood ranges in color from blonde through red to deep brown, with the grain patterns also varying from tree to tree and place to place. 

 

Traditionally koa was a canoe tree, large enough to produce an entire hull from a single trunk—in those times, canoes were sometimes referred to as “the koa grove at sea.” But koa of that size takes decades to mature, and it’s been much in demand for other uses since the mid-nineteenth century: Pre-contact Hawaiians didn’t make furniture, but foreigners coming to the Islands in the wake of Captain Cook’s 1778 “discovery” brought with them their customs and their desire for creature comforts. One of the earliest known pieces of koa furniture in Hawai‘i was a rocking chair made for Queen Ka‘ahumanu by the Rev. Hiram Bingham in 1830. Cabinet-makers began arriving in the late 1830s, many from America, followed by a wave of German artisans in the 1840s who brought a more lavish style that appealed to the increasingly Victorian tastes of the Hawaiian monarchy. In this way, koa furniture began its rise as a status symbol: Today this single wood essentially sustains the entire fine furniture industry in the Islands.

 

For much of the twentieth century lower-elevation groves were cleared for timber, agriculture and ranching. Because koa saplings are susceptible to being eaten (or trampled) by cattle, new trees couldn’t grow to replace them. Long story short: Large trees on private lands are a rare commodity, and modern canoe-makers are only a small segment in a global market that includes the aforementioned artisans and luthiers (the latter being mostly Linda’s “‘ukulele guys”), along with commercial producers of everything from koa flooring and veneer to picture frames, bookmarks and ballpoint pens. A log large enough to build a forty-five foot racing canoe might fetch anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000, but the wood is more valuable when sold piecemeal: Prices statewide range from $8 per board foot for a standard piece to more than $100 for instrument-quality.

 

So you get Linda’s joke when, looking around the stockpile, she deadpans: “Yeah, we got a little.”

 


 

 

When people talk about koa in Hawai‘i, there’s a tendency to romanticize, even anthropomorphize the elder trees. With good reason: Culturally speaking, it’s a significant tree; it is no accident that koa is the Hawaiian word for “warrior,” also “brave, bold, fearless, valiant”—it is a wood with mana, a strong wood, that in addition to its use in canoes was also used for weapons. It is also environmentally important. Koa forests—often a mix of koa and another native tree, ‘ohi‘a, that was also heavily logged in the early twentieth century—are home to thirty of Hawai‘i’s thirty-five remaining native forest bird species, seventeen of which are on the federal endangered species list. Nearly one-third of all threatened and endangered plant species in the Islands can be found in koa/‘öhi‘a forests. But beyond all of this, koa is a magnificent tree, the tallest native in the forest. It’s easy to understand why for many the fate of koa is often linked—both literally and figuratively—to that of modern Hawaiians.

 

Puggy and family have been amassing their collection of wood for seventeen years. They started with a few trees from their own backyard and progressed to their current multi-year contract with the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL), in which they selectively remove trees from 300 acres of land on the northeastern flank of Mauna Kea, an area Big Island residents know as Mana Road. For the better part of a century these lands were leased to cattle ranchers; when the leases expired a few years back, DHHL opted not to renew and has instead been working to revive native forests. To do so, the department has been contracting out to various enterprises—the Hulamas are among several others—to clear space for new growth.

 

But this is not commercial logging as most would imagine it. A DHHL agent first identifies a tree to be removed and estimates how much marketable wood it will provide; the Hulamas then pay the department for the tree, cut and mill it on site (this to prevent poachers from coming in and carting off whole logs) and truck the lumber out. The only major step that doesn’t take place on-site is the kiln drying, which is done back at the Hulama family compound.

 

For every tree they take, they’re required to leave one within sixty-five feet, and as a final step they “scarify” the surrounding land, a bulldozing process that allows new seedlings to grow. And they do: On one parcel of land that the Hulamas worked five years ago, there’s no sign that they’d even been there, except for the ten-foot koa saplings that now inhabit the space. In the end, the Hulamas (and a handful of others who do similar work) are seeking the holy grail of agroforestry: balancing restoration with harvesting. And if not for the economic incentive that koa provides, it’s extremely unlikely this land would ever be restored: Besides the lack of trees, these erstwhile pasturelands have over the years become infested with gorse, a shrub imported from Scotland to Hawai‘i to serve as a pasture hedgerow but which has today overrun many abandoned Big Island fields.

 

For his part, Puggy sees the removal of both cattle and aging trees as part of the same process. “They no mo’ young trees, only the old ones,” says Puggy in his heavy pidgin, describing the Mana Road landscape. “Dead and dying trees, that’s what we usually take out: 80, 100 years old—time for them to go; time to do some replanting.”

 

As a Native Hawaiian who works in the forestry industry, Puggy is to some extent straddling a line: While he reveres the trees, his views on restoring native forests are pragmatic. Not long ago, one of his neighbors was struggling with the idea of cutting down a koa that had grown on family land for at least three generations—but the tree was dying and would eventually rot into nothingness. In Puggy’s eyes, this would be as much a crime as indiscriminately cutting healthy trees—a waste of something valuable, a dishonor to the ancestors on whose land it grew (and who would themselves have made use of it). He convinced the neighbor to take down the tree and then milled it for them, giving them back the wood to use in their home ... in other words, putting it to use while opening up their land for new koa seedlings that have now taken root.

 

 “It used to be that there was only cattle up there, and they would eat all the seedlings,” says Puggy of his current work site. “Now you see plenty young trees popping up all over. That’s where the forest belongs: Way up there where nobody like go. Get plenty other places to pasture cows—we need some koa trees, brah!”