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King of the Forest

"Foresters have wide estimates of its age, generally in the neighborhood of 500 years."

 

By Jan TenBruggencate

The monarch koa of The Nature Conservancy’s Kona Hema Preserve was already old when Kamehameha was a boy.

“You’re sort of in the company of greatness when you lie down and look up at the tree from below,” said Rob Shallenberger, former Hawaii Island director for The Nature Conservancy.

This immense tree has been placed on the 2012 National Register of Big Trees as a grand champion under the American Forests Big Trees Program.

No larger koa tree has been found in Hawaii than the one at Kona Hema Preserve.   It is a truly massive specimen, 115 feet high with a canopy 93 feet wide.  Its girth at chest-high is 343 inches, nearly 29 feet around.  That means it’s more than nine feet thick.

Foresters have wide estimates of its age, generally in the neighborhood of 500 years. It grows at 4,500 feet in elevation and was already a couple of hundred years old when Capt. James Cook sailed into Kealakekua Bay, just north of the tree’s location, in 1779.

The Conservancy’s Kona Hema Preserve is 8,089 acres of South Kona land dedicated to the preservation of the region’s  koa-‘ōhia forest and all the native species that live in it. Feral animals and a century of logging have damaged the forest, which the Conservancy acquired in parcels, beginning in 1999.

“Even though Kona Hema has been logged five times in the last hundred years, they didn’t harvest it,” said Mel Johansen, the Conservancy’s Kona Hema Preserve field coordinator.  “One idea is that it’s just so bloody big, too big to move around with the equipment available at the time. Also, there is a seam up the back of the tree, and that can indicate rot—so that could have been why it wasn’t cut.”

Shallenberger has a simpler answer: “I like to think it was worth keeping because it was so impressive.”

The tree stands surrounded by native forest, including some of its own offspring, along with ōhia and native understory trees and shrubs like mamane, ōlapa, kōlea, olomea, pilo, awa and kāwau. Native forest birds seen visiting the tree include iiwi, apapane, amakihi and the Hawaiian hawk, io.

“We’ve had people from all over the world come look at it. It’s sort of become the icon of Kona Hema,” Shallenberger said.

Sheri Mann, the State cooperative resource management forester, has spearheaded the establishment of a Hawaii big tree list. She said there are now 21 species—including both native and introduced trees—on the list. 

“The big tree program is all about education and pride. We hope that including Hawai‘i on the national Big Trees register will help educate and encourage conservation of our important trees and watersheds,” she said.

But the big koa tree is at risk. Its very age threatens it.  Wildfire could kill it. And wind could knock it down.  A windstorm is attributed to the loss of one massive limb. “We had a large branch that broke off.  It was 2-½ feet in diameter—as big as the biggest ōhia trees,” Johansen said.

“It’s a very old tree.  I think it’s past its prime,” said Mann.

Added Johansen: “It’s much older than the forest around it. But one hopeful sign is that other koa trees in the vicinity are probably from its seeds.”

There are no formal tour programs for people who want to visit the tree, but Nature Conservancy volunteer groups at Kona Hema often get a hike to the big koa as a perk.

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