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‘Ōhi‘a in bloom.
"Misaki has built the Conservancy’s Molokaʻi program into something whose reach is far beyond the boundaries of Kamakou."
by Jan TenBruggencate
The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii’s first forest preserve celebrates complexity—of species, of color, of shade, and even of texture.
While many other preserves have been established since, Kamakou remains a crown jewel, draping the Molokaʻi upland from an elevation of 2,034 feet to 4,527 feet.
“I’ve been in good native forest all around the state, and Kamakou is the gem—an explosion of diversity from the ground up to the canopy,” said Sam ʻOhu Gon III, the Conservancy’s senior scientist and cultural adviser for Hawaiʻi.
This year, the 2,774-acre Kamakou Preserve celebrates its 30th anniversary. It was the Conservancy’s first Hawai‘i preserve, acquired from Molokai Ranch through the state’s first conservation easement.
And for almost its entire existence, Kamakou has been in the care of one man, a third-generation Molokaʻi boy named Ed Misaki. He was hired in 1983, just five years out of college with a degree in biological science.
Misaki developed his steadfast commitment to the wet upland preserve during a week-long camping trip with the Conservancy’s then deputy director, Alan Holt. “After seeing it, and learning about the birds and plants, it just clicked,” Misaki said.
A Special Place
That is not an unusual response to Kamakou. “Even if you’ve seen native forest before, you recognize that this is so special. You come down from there and you’re converted,” adds Gon.
Kamakou lies at the heart of the island’s watershed. More than 200 species of native plants are woven together here in a rich biological tapestry, providing habit for Partulina tree snails, happy-face spiders and colorful forest birds like the crimson ʻapapane and yellow-green ʻamakihi.
“When I was young, I called it the ‘ancient forest’. It wasn’t until years later that I realized what a treasure it is, when I went there as a photographer. I would go up there for the ‘ōhi‘a. It was pristine ‘ōhi‘a forest, so dense, covered with huge amounts of moss,” said Rikki Cooke, a Conservancy Hawaiʻi board member and National Geographic photographer who was raised on Molokaʻi and still lives there.
Nowhere in Hawai‘i can you find the dense palette of Kamakou’s famous ‘ōhi‘a forest—the red, pink, orange and yellow blossoms. “I have flown over it when it’s in bloom, and you see a dense carpet of color,” said Suzanne Case, the Conservancy’s Hawaiʻi executive director.
Adding to the color are complex visual textures—ghostly, diaphanous fogs, trembling ‘ōlapa, showy flowering spikes of the native lobelias, jagged sedges of the miniaturized bog forests. “I have always thought of Kamakou as an enchanted forest. It is magical. And it is completely different from what people think of as Hawaiʻi,” Case said.
And Misaki has been the perfect caretaker. During his tenure, he has reduced the damage from pigs and other feral animals to almost zero, removed invasive weeds and helped stop three major wildfires. “He’s just so passionate about what he does. He has almost a child’s sense of wonder about ‘his’ forest. You just get his enthusiasm,” said Case.
A Chant for Kamakou
Gon, who in addition to his scientific training is a chanter and cultural practitioner, composed a chant for Misaki when Kamakou was 25 years old. It starts with these lines:
He ala loloa ho‘i i ka piko o Moloka‘i
Such a long path to the summit of Moloka‘i
I ke kī‘ohu‘ohu po‘ohiwi o Hanalilolilo
In the clinging mists on the shoulder of Hanalilolilo
Lilo wale ke alahele i ka uhiwai
The path can be lost in the thick fog
A loa‘a ke alaka‘i pono e kuhi a‘e
Unless a righteous leader points the way….
Misaki started out in 1983 working alone for Kamakou and the Conservancy. “I remember Ed. He had a young baby. He and his wife lived in Kualapu‘u and the office was in a shed,” said Cooke.
A young Sam Gon was one of the first volunteers at Kamakou. He recalled that despite its splendor, the preserve had plenty of problems. Invasive New Zealand flax was spreading everywhere, pigs were tearing up the forest floor, and goats were threatening the lower reaches. And hikers were churning the native bogs into wide mud wallows.
Today, the flax is gone. Fences keep ungulates at bay. The state’s first forest boardwalk— built in 1985 with a crew of youth workers from Alu Like—protects the fragile Pēpē‘ōpae Bog so well that rare native bog violets pop up between the planks. A Molokaʻi understory monitoring system tracks the health of the forest.
“One of the signs of a healthy forest is a good understory,” Misaki said.
A Forest Legacy
And Misaki has built the Conservancy’s Molokaʻi program into something whose reach is far beyond the boundaries of Kamakou. The Conservancy has two other preserves on the island: Pelekunu and Moʻomomi. He helped form and now leads the 33,000-acre East Molokaʻi Watershed Partnership, which joins the landowners of much of upland Molokaʻi in a collaborative effort to protect the island’s watershed. He is working to expand it to include all of the island’s high watershed. He also helped launched the island’s renowned Earth Day celebration and is a founding board member of the Molokaʻi Land Trust, which manages three preserves on the island.
“Ed is good at quietly getting the job done. He’s kind of low key. But he has quietly created a conservation community on this island that would not exist if not for Ed. He has created a fabulous staff. He teaches in the college. He’s the one who comes up with the water plan, comes up with the money, writes the grants,” Cooke said.
“My whole adult life has been protecting the native forest on Molokaʻi,” said Misaki.
For 30 years, Kamakou has been his passion. It will also be his legacy.