HLRI Works to Preserve Forestry at Kahuā Ranch
The Hawaiian Legacy Reforestation Initiative (HLRI) is a nonprofit dedicated to rebuilding Hawai‘i’s natural rainforest environments and to restoring the diversity and integrity of the native ecosystem. HLRI is an organization run by people with lifetimes of experience in all of the areas necessary to the success of this project. It is a new way of sustainable reforestation that is found nowhere else on Earth.
About an hour north of Kailua-Kona, on the western slope of Hawai‘i Island’s oldest volcano, Mount Kohala, cattle, sheep and horses graze along verdant rolling hills. Above them rise ancient cinder cones. In these rough, steep patches of largely untouched terrain, the island’s newest native forest is taking shape.
At Kahuā Ranch, third-generation cattle rancher Monty Richards is preserving a family legacy of land stewardship by embracing a new reforestation effort. Foresters from the Hawaiian Legacy Reforestation Initiative (HLRI) are spearheading an intensive process of cataloging and mapping the native species at the ranch property. The trees there will serve as the seed source to permanently reforest some 700 acres of marshland and volcanic soil.
HRLI’s efforts dovetail with previous work done by the nonprofit Kohala Watershed Partnership (KWP) to remove invasive species and protect the existing native forest. In 2012, the organization’s staff and volunteers completed a major project to install an ungulate-proof fence along 270 acres of the Pu‘u Pili cinder cone. The effort will prevent feral goats, pigs and cattle from the destructive trampling and rooting of vegetation that cause soil erosion across the watershed.
“This area is very biodiverse and houses many sensitive native species,” says Cody Dwight, a coordinator at KWP. “We’re coordinating our efforts with HLRI, in partnership with Kahuā Ranch, to remove invasive species and replace them with native plants and trees.”
Over the next 2 years, HLRI will support the efforts to remove Himalayan ginger, strawberry guava and other major ecological threats. They will be replaced with endemic koa, ‘ōhi‘a, māmane, naio, ko‘oko‘olau, kūkaenēnē and ‘iliahi (Hawaiian sandalwood) trees. For the 88 year-old Richards, who serves as ranch chairman, these partnerships will help ensure the preservation of the ahupua‘a (land division) for future generations.
In the 1920s, Honolulu businessman Atherton Richards and O‘ahu rancher Ronald von Holt enclosed hundreds of acres of this hard-to-reach land when they founded what is, today, the 8,500-acre Kahuā Ranch. As they worked to corral their cattle, they unwittingly preserved a rare treasure trove of natural diversity.
“The ranch goes from the top of Kohala Mountain down to the ocean,” says Richards, the nephew of the ranch co-founder. “The top part is very wet and forested—you don’t run cattle in there. So it was kept for water storage. I look to do what is best for the land and the people on the island, more importantly for Kohala. How can we do something to not only keep the forested land, but also make sure we are putting back Hawaiian trees?”
HLRI, a nonprofit organization founded in 2014, has already reforested 400,000 endemic and native trees at the nearby Kūka‘iau Ranch above ‘Umikoa Village. Kahuā Ranch is the first major expansion of HLRI’s Legacy Forest program, which is working to reforest 1.3 million trees—one for each person in Hawai‘i. Kahuā will eventually be home to 250,000 of these newly planted Legacy Trees, each of which will be sponsored and tracked over their lifetime.
“The Legacy Forest will have a measurable impact on preserving the land’s existing rare endemic species while reforesting a variety of native trees and enhancing critical habitat for endangered wildlife,” says HLRI Executive Director Jeff Dunster. “We need to protect and nurture what little of these native lands we have left.”
Kahuā, meaning the beginning, the source or the foundation, is the legendary site where King Kamehameha I assembled and trained his warriors for the impending conquest of the Hawaiian Islands. At more than 3,500 feet above sea level, this working ranch welcomes more than 10,000 visitors every year for recreation and leisure activities.
A fifth-generation kama‘āina and third-generation rancher, Monty Richards was born on the ranch and raised his three children there. He continues to live there with his wife, Ellie. After attending boarding school on the East Coast and earning an agriculture degree in California, he moved to Honolulu where he worked jobs like rolling hides and delivering meat to grocers from his family’s livestock processing facility.
Richards later returned to Kahuā and established a reputation for innovative ranching practices, including herd diversification, hydroponic farming, the integration of renewable energy and rapid rotational grazing. Richards has also worked for decades to keep the forest and the ranchland free from subdivision and development.
“When you’ve got a lot of land, it is a big responsibility,” he says. “I’m not interested in splitting it up to make a lot of money. You have got to be a steward of the land, turn it over when you’re done to the next person and make sure it is in as good a situation as it was when you took it over.”