Restoring the land, Part I: East end

This is the first of a few installments about the ecological restoration work happening on this island. The story will take us from one extreme end of the island to the other, bringing us right back to our home at the Hui, which plays an integral role in the restoration and is an  inspiring example of the positive change possible when a community of people shares a common vision.

Last week, in a whirlwind twenty-four hours, Marc and I traversed from the northeastern tip of the island to the far northwest. From one end to the other, Molokai feels like a completely different place. For an island that’s only 38 by 10 miles in size, there is unbelievable diversity of terrain, thoroughly rugged–and endangered–from tip to tip. The island was created by two volcanoes, one forming the eastern mountains, and one on the west. Molokai’s coastal cliffs, the highest in the world, were formed when the north side of the eastern volcano suffered a catastrophic collapse about 1.5 million years ago and sunk to the bottom of the ocean. The forested, mountainous eastern half receives about 300 inches of rain per year; the west, about 15-20. In the middle, where it slopes down close to sea level, the land gets perhaps five inches per year, and there are disturbing signs that it’s slowly drying up. The entire western half is dry scrubland, and there have been three years of significant drought. With climate change, the frequency of drought is only expected to increase.

Long ago, the land would have been more protected from the effects of drought. It was covered in a diversity of species and great stands of sandalwood trees. But the fragrant wood has all but vanished. A huge pit, the exact size of the cargo hold of a ship, remains visible in the middle of the island. Here, logs were hauled en masse until they filled the hole. They were then shipped in bulk to China for a few bumper decades in the early 1800s, until the forests quickly disappeared. Axis deer–introduced to the islands in the 1800s for King Kamehameha’s hunting pleasure–have decimated the island’s vegetation from tip to tip. From the sensitive coastline to the remote mountainsides, the thousands of deer are joined by hungry goats and feral pigs, mowing down any native plants that dare to pop up and creating serious erosion problems. The native species are further choked out by monoculture stands of invasive plants introduced over the centuries.

Signs of these threats to the landscape were clear last week when we went for a late afternoon swim at Halawa Bay on the east end. Overhead, helicopters routinely circled over the cliffs, shooting goats on sight. It’s sad, but necessary to protect the integrity of the landscape. Afterward, we visited our friend Cole at Pu’u O Hoku Ranch, the 14,000-acre biodynamic cattle ranch. Cole works with Marc on the Hui’s reforestation project but spends his days off working at the ranch. Knowing firsthand the nausea-inducing intensity of his workouts, I was doubtful when he suggested a “short half-hour run” through the steep grazing lands to the northeastern cliffs. But sheer excitement got the better of me as I trailed the guys down through the rocky landscape, which opened up to a 360 degree view looking back over distant Halawa Bay, with the waterfalls and helicopters still visible.

We stood at the edge of a straight vertical drop of several hundred feet into churning water below, where humpbacks spouted and surfaced. Running along the edge, we dipped down into a gulch where a small flock of nene, the endangered Hawaiian state bird, cautiously surveyed us, droning their strange melancholic sounds. In addition to the ranch’s restoration project, it has some pens where the nene can nest in safety. We stood overlooking Cape Halawa with Maui visible to the southeast, and the tiny prehistoric cinder cone islands Moku Ho’oniki and Kanaha Rock directly in front. A WWII bombing practice site, Moku Ho’okini is uninhabitable due to unexploded warheads and is now a bird sanctuary. Turning back around, we watched a wild blue and yellow sunset through the clouds as we sweated back up the hill, with evidence of grazing deer all around us.

Cole shot an axis deer nearby on the ranchlands just a few days ago. He seared it proudly in a skillet for dinner as we listened to his most recent plan to use his new hide-tanning knowledge–gleaned from Youtube videos–to start up a tanning operation on the island. We discussed the merits of different tanning techniques–from battery acid (oh god!) to eggs to good old-fashioned animal brains. Sitting down to dinner, I felt like I was participating in restoring the balance of the ecosystem with every tasty bite. It’s times like this when being a meat-eater comes in handy, as the one silver lining of this major threat to the landscape is an abundant food source (one that doesn’t even know it can jump, unlike the deer back home). On Molokai, wild pigs and deer are a critical component of the diet of a population that often can afford little else.

We opted for a late-night drive home along the rocky cliffs and hairpin twists of the one-lane highway, which hugged the rough water’s edge where Hawaiian men were gathered around giant trucks, fishing in the moonlight. I was up before dawn and had finished the day’s harvesting and watering before breakfast, eager for our next adventure. We were heading out to see more of the Molokai Land Trust reserve with Butch, the trust’s Executive Director and leader of their restoration project. After a torrential downpour early in the morning, we shifted gears away from our plans to harvest seeds in the soggy eastern mountains and headed northwest…

Crumbling remains of a 19th century church at Halawa:



Halawa Bay


Aerial shot of the middle of the island, from Marc’s plane ride



Eastern mountains and valleys….



On the drive to the east end… (this house is just down the road from Monsanto’s headquarters)


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