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Magazine Articles

Enchanted Forest

February/March 2015

Photographs by Nick Hall

On the Micronesian island of Kosrae, indigenous landowners are using the region’s first conservation easement to protect a rare ecosystem—and their own future.

Before you enter the Yela forest, it's a good idea to get permission from the Alik family, and not just because it’s polite. The Aliks and a related family have owned the forest for many generations, ever since it was given to them in the 19th century by native rulers on Kosrae, a lush volcanic island in the Federated States of Micronesia. According to local lore, the forest is haunted by the spirits of the Aliks’ ancestors, who are said to play malevolent tricks on uninvited guests. Trespassers supposedly suffer fierce nightmares and wake up with their mouths filled with mud.

“Ghosts,” confirms Tholman Alik, head of the family landowners association, with a twinkle in his eye.

For the record, Alik is a highly educated man, a doctor at the only hospital on Kosrae, which at 42 square miles is barely a blip in the western Pacific. So, no, he doesn’t really believe these campfire tales, even if his late father, a fisherman and farmer, once related them as gospel. But he does take his ancestral connections to the forest seriously. The forest has provided generations of the Alik family with a rich bounty of food, medicines and timber.

It’s also among the last of its kind, forming the heart of the world’s largest remaining stand of ka trees (Terminalia carolinensis). Found only on Kosrae and the nearby island of Pohnpei, ka trees are graceful giants known for their umbrella-shaped crowns and huge, moss-covered buttresses that resemble the fins of a rocket ship.

The forest is part of the 1,400-acre Yela Valley—an “unusually pristine tropical watershed,” according to a 2006 assessment by the U.S. Forest Service’s Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry. The assessment described the Yela forest as “perhaps the most valuable intact landscape remaining in Kosrae, despite the high value of its timber.”

But when the local government proposed putting a road through the Yela, its future was in serious jeopardy.


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The family of Tholman Alik has owned this unique ka forest on Kosrae for centuries. To preserve it for future generations, the Aliks worked with the Conservancy to establish an income-generating conservation easement. © Nick Hall.

On a steamy June afternoon, Mike Conner, a Nature Conservancy senior project director from California, steps into a fiberglass skiff with William William, an Alik family member and the project manager for their landowners association. William takes the helm and motors a mile or two in the protected waters behind a coral reef, then veers inland through a tunnel in a mangrove forest where the Yela River empties into the sea. The skiff pushes against the river’s sluggish current for another few minutes before William cuts the engine and noses into the bank.
 
Thick, gooey mud sucks at their flip-flops as they step off the boat—a reminder that the forest is, in fact, a swamp, owing to its location at the base of mountains that receive more than 15 feet of rainfall a year. Brown toads scatter at the men’s approach. Giant taro leaves glisten in the murky light.
 
As Conner and William make their way inland, the ka forest closes around them. Towering up to 80 feet above the valley floor, the Yela’s marquee attractions manage to look both elegant and a little cartoonish with their smooth, subtly fluted trunks, delicate yellow-green crowns and especially their outlandish fins, which prevent them from toppling over in the mucky soil.
 
William, a former high school science teacher, pauses to point out how the fins of one tree are bigger on one side than the other. “This is how smart this tree is,” he says with a grin. “It creates its own support.”
 
Conner picks up a stone, knocks it against one of the hollow roots and is rewarded with a deep, resonant boom. Kosrae’s original inhabitants are said to have used the same trick to communicate, after paddling to the island in voyaging canoes from the south and west in several immigration waves that began in the early part of the first millennium, if not before. The natives lived undisturbed until French explorers dropped anchor in 1824, followed by American whalers and then missionaries, whose legacy is displayed in an abundance of whitewashed churches. 
 
The foreigners also brought disease, which decimated the native population, and not much survives of its culture except for the Kosraen language. The Yela forest is a rare link to Kosrae’s indigenous heritage. According to Tholman Alik, the family acquired the land-use rights in the early part of the 19th century from one of Kosrae’s “tokusras,” or kings. Tokusras ruled from an elaborate complex of basalt courtyards and canals (their ruins are now partly concealed by an Ace Hardware store). 
 
In the early 20th century, around the time the island was occupied by Japan, the ka forest was divided between two branches of the family. The Alik branch was headed by a reclusive woodsman named Alik Kufus, known for his powerful build and fondness for brewing “sakuhru,” an alcoholic beverage made from fermented palm sap. Kufus and his wife made their home in the forest, where they raised 10 children in a house that Kufus built from wood he harvested from the ka forest, according to Hiroko Johnathan, the couple’s only surviving child.
 
A gray-haired woman in a purple house dress, Johnathan has fond memories of the forest, where she and her siblings amused themselves by plunging into the river from a rope swing and on school days traveled back and forth to Walung, a tiny coastal village, in an outrigger canoe.
 
But traditional uses of the Yela have dwindled. Alik Kufus died in the 1950s, and his offspring moved to settled parts of Kosrae, whose 8,000 or so inhabitants now depend heavily on government jobs. Tholman Alik says that most of the roughly 300 members of his extended family have never even set foot in the forest they collectively own, except perhaps for an annual picnic to mark the death of Alik Kufus, who is buried there under a pile of stones. 

 


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Part of the Federated States of Micronesia—whose four nations encompass 607 islands—the island of Kosrae’s remoteness has kept it relatively unspoiled. A rare ka forest survives in the Yela Valley, and flourishing reefs provide plenty of fish for locals, including Houver Alik. © Nick Hall.

About a decade ago, Kosrae’s then-governor dusted off an old proposal to close a gap in the main road that runs along the island’s rim. 
The project would improve access to Walung, otherwise reachable only by boat or a rugged jungle track that is often impassable to all but four-wheel-drive vehicles. But the ka forest stood in the way.
 
Putting a road through or even near the ka forest would disrupt the flow of water that is vital to maintaining the wetland in its natural state, according to Kathleen Friday of the Forest Service’s Pacific institute, which works with forestry agencies on U.S.-affiliated Pacific islands (the Federated States of Micronesia is a former U.S.-administered trust). 
 
The road project spurred the Aliks into action. Their goal was to protect the forest over the long term while maintaining their connection to it. Even before they formally organized as an association in 2006, the Alik family was communicating with Bill Raynor, who was running The Nature Conservancy’s Micronesia programs from an office 300 miles away on the island of Pohnpei. 
 
Raynor suggested a conservation easement, a legal covenant that effectively pays landowners to leave their holdings undisturbed. The Conservancy has used such easements for decades in North America, but this would be the first in the Asia-Pacific region.
 
For expertise, Raynor turned to Mike Conner, who works out of the Conservancy’s offices in Sacramento and San Francisco, where he has negotiated easements with ranchers and other landowners. But he had never worked overseas, let alone in a place like Kosrae, where he landed for the first time in 2007 after taking the nine-hour “island hopper” from Honolulu. He was accompanied on that trip by his wife and two young children, whose presence he credits with helping to develop a rapport with the forest owners.
 
“When I showed up for 10 days with my family, it opened doors,” Conner says. “There was an element of trust.”
 
It was the first of many visits. There were myriad legal issues in a country where conservation easements had no precedent. There was haggling over the value of the land and the language of the restrictions that would be placed on its use. There was even a question of ownership, since the only formal record of the Aliks’ claim to the Yela was a map drawn by the Japanese before World War II. Even as they moved ahead with the plan, family members agonized over whether the forest might ultimately prove more valuable as a source of timber or cattle forage. 
 
“I looked into every single thing,” Tholman Alik says. “I couldn’t go to sleep because I felt I could get a better deal.”

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The Milky Way shines above a lone mangrove tree at the edge of one of Kosrae Island’s thriving coral reefs. © Nick Hall.

The proposed road was eventually dropped by the government, but the family moved ahead with its plans anyway.
 
Finally, in early 2014, eight years after Conner’s first trip to Kosrae, the landowners’ group formally agreed to forgo development or commercial logging in its portion of the 400-acre forest, though some traditional activities, such as eel trapping, are still permitted. In return, the family received $500,000, paid by the island’s resource management agency and a nonprofit called the Micronesia Conservation Trust using grants from the Forest Service and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.
 
The money has been invested in a trust that pays $25,000 a year, which is to be divided equally among the 10 families descended from Alik Kufus and his wife. At $2,500 per family, it might not sound like much, but it’s enough to make a difference for a fisherman like Houver Alik, who used part of his share of an initial payout to buy parts for his outboard motor. 
 
The Aliks also hope to profit in other ways, expressed in Tholman Alik’s desire to “make the Yela project a brand.” The landowners association is building an elevated walkway between the mangrove and the ka trees to provide access for visitors, who pay a $20 entry fee and are drawn from the roughly 900 intrepid tourists who visit Kosrae each year.
 
The forest’s money-making potential has not gone unnoticed. The Wesleys, the related family that owns the other half of the forest, recently expressed interest in a similar easement. “It’s a big decision,” Conner acknowledges during his initial meeting with family representatives Isaac Nithan and Mysud Wesley.
 
Wesley says he is “a little bit afraid” of signing away their development rights. “Can we still do farming like planting soft taro?” asks Nithan. 
 
“It can be built into the easement as long as it’s not too extensive,” Conner replies. 
 
The Yela is but one piece of a much larger mosaic. The governments of five Micronesian nations have pledged to protect 30 percent of their islands’ marine resources and 20 percent of their terrestrial resources by 2020. Forests such as the Yela are vital to that effort because they act as natural water filters, trapping sediments that could harm nearby corals and mangroves—and the fish that depend on both.
 
But for the Alik family, saving the ka forest was personal. “As a group, we thought it was very important to us,” says Tholman Alik, who has lived on Kosrae for most of his 43 years. “This is our land. This is our history. This is everything we are as indigenous people.”