Issue 16.6: Dec. 2013 / Jan. 2014

The Green Baron

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.

At first it was a matter of trial and error, with a little help from Mother Nature. “When I first got here I had a forest to learn from. That’s why I walked the forest and learned to mimic it, and added my college education to it. It’s all nature’s,” Baron says. “All I did was put it together.” By “putting it together,” Baron has pioneered techniques to propagate plant species, experimenting to find the best way to mass-produce native plants. Sometimes what works seems counterintuitive: Take the seeds of the koa, for example, which are notoriously difficult to sprout. The solution? “A boiling hot water soak breaks seed dormancy,” says Baron. “It’s amazing to me that koa seeds can handle this boiling hot water technique. The first time I did it I thought I was making koa soup.” Baron even propagated a native mint that was thought to have gone extinct. The last time it was recorded was in 1874; more than a century later, retired refuge manager Jack Jeffrey found a specimen and brought the seeds to Baron. They were badly infected by a fungus, so Baron treated them with chlorine bleach and hundreds sprouted. Since 1987 the refuge has planted a halfmillion seedlings, more than seven thousand of which are endangered species, making Hakalau one of the most ambitious native reforestation efforts in the state.

Watching Baron bustle in the greenhouse, it’s hard to imagine him ever having done anything else. But when an injury ended his carpentry career when he was 32 years old, he was forced to look for alternatives. Thinking he’d become a plant quarantine inspector to protect Hawai‘i Island from imported pests, he entered the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, majoring in horticulture. After graduation, though, things didn’t turn out as he expected: Retired deputy refuge manager Jim Glenn had the good fortune to find Baron and the foresight to offer him a job as a horticulturalist at Hakalau. Even though it was only part time, and temporary, Baron jumped at the chance to not only protect the island but help restore it.

For the first three years Baron slept in a tent cabin in nighttime temperatures that at this elevation can drop to nineteen degrees Fahrenheit. “It was so cold I couldn’t sleep at first. Then I brought three sleeping bags and covered my face with a blanket. I got used to it,” he shrugs. The refuge now has administration buildings and cabins with running water and electricity, but the tattered tent where Baron slept is still there, a testament to his dedication. “That’s a museum piece,” says refuge manager Jim Kraus, “that will be preserved forever.”

Baron’s work at the refuge consists of growing plants, but he also works closely with the volunteers on whom the restoration effort ultimately depends. He teaches them to identify the plants by using all their senses: He crushes the pale gray leaf of an ‘aweoweo, a plant that shares its name with a native reef fish, and invites the volunteers to take a whiff of its fishy odor. To clear the air he plucks a smooth, dark green ‘olapa leaf, releasing its refreshing, carroty scent. Baron says that pilo, a member of the coffee family, has bright orange berries redolent of coffee cherries.

Don’t ask Baron about his favorite plant; he won’t choose. He will say, though, that the most unusual plant at Hakalau is Cyanea shipmanii, called haha in Hawaiian. “It has a spiny stem and leaves up to a certain height, and then the stem gets smooth. No one really knows why,” though one theory has it that the spines protected the haha from moa, large flightless birds that were once common in this area; the stem becomes smooth at just about the height a moa would have been able to reach. “There are few in the wild—only six individuals are left — so there is the challenge to grow more.”

Baron’s passion is contagious, especially among the volunteers who do the work and the donors who help buy the supplies: potting mix, fertilizer, irrigation systems, etc. Some volunteers pay their own airfare and sacrifice vacation time to make their annual trip to the refuge. Some volunteers have been coming to the refuge for twenty-eight years, and more than five hundred work there each year. The result is a sense of ownership and stewardship of the land that’s passed down in the community generation after generation; the refuge now has volunteers whose grandparents planted trees in Hakalau when they themselves were in college. The program is so popular that it’s booked solid eighteen months in advance, with a long wait-list. “What really amazes me is we don’t advertise,” says Baron. “It’s all word of mouth. They want to give back to the island.”

Outside the greenhouse this morning, volunteers line up rows of laundry baskets, each filled with fifteen assorted seedlings. “Two, four, five … We need five ‘ohi’a,” a volunteer calls, and others scurry for more plants before loading the baskets into a pickup. Seven thousand seedlings have been outplanted over the past four months. Most of the plants have been growing in the greenhouse for up to two years to become a foot tall and ready to plant.

But this time things are different. Baron won’t be planting any koa. An extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime natural phenomenon is happening in the refuge: a population explosion of native koa looper moths has defoliated more than fifty thousand acres of koa all over East Hawai‘i. A few weeks before I arrived, Hakalau had been besieged by millions of tiny caterpillars chomping on koa foliage. I just happen to be here as they’re metamorphosing into millions of swarming moths. There are records of koa moth outbreaks in the last century, but none match the magnitude of this irruption. It looks like a blizzard; the moths don’t bite or sting, but they do fly into our eyes and mouths while we’re planting. (Trust me, inhaling a moth is nothing like catching a snowflake on your tongue.) While it’s ethereally beautiful, refuge managers are concerned; no one knows why they are so prolific or how severe their impact will be.

There’s reason for optimism, though. Paul Banko, a biologist with the US Geological Survey who has been monitoring the moths since the first outbreak, observed skeletonized trees putting out new shoots, even after they were stripped a second time. “We’re learning a lot but starting from a deep well of ignorance,” Paul says. The outbreaks may be a natural occurrence, because both the moth and koa are native species; it might be nature’s way of ‘thinning’ weak trees to keep the forest healthy. There’s hope the forests will eventually reach a state of equilibrium.” For Baron it’s just another of many hurdles to overcome when bringing an ancient forest back to life. “There’s always a new challenge like the koa moth,” he says. “At first I was very depressed. But then I realized this is no time to get depressed, because it’s time to prepare for reforestation again.”

Baron’s scientific knowledge and practical skills, along with his charismatic leadership of the volunteer program, earned him the US Fish and Wildlife Service Employee of the Year award in 2009 and the Rachel Carson Award for Science Excellence in 2012. But he brushes off these accolades like the clingy burrs of a weed and, in true Island fashion, credits everyone—the volunteers, his teachers, his family—but himself. When he demurred to fly to Washington, DC, to receive the Employee of the Year award, refuge manager Jim Kraus begged him to go. “I told him, ‘I’ll carry your damn luggage!’” says Jim. Baron finally relented, but for the second award he wouldn’t budge. Instead the award came to him: A delegation flew to Hawai‘i to give him the honor.

Despite the recognition, Baron insists that he isn’t doing it for himself. “The refuge is doing its best to protect Hawai‘i’s wildlife and its habitat so they will be there for our kids to enjoy and their kids to enjoy, and on and on,” Baron says. “I’m lucky this turned into a permanent job with great people. I feel happy to give back to this island that I love. That is the constant goal of my life.