The native tree is a vital part of Hawaiʻi’s forests and watersheds, and prized by woodworkers and by Hawaiian cultural practitioners. The challenge is making koa sustainable for all of its valuable roles.
Video by Jeff Hawe
Koa has long been magical in Hawaiʻi. A beautiful dark red wood with an unmistakable curly grain, it is featured today in some of the world’s most beautiful ʻukulele, guitars, canoes, surfboards and furniture.
he best of it sells for as much as $150 a board foot – 12 by 12 by 1 inch – and can be difficult to obtain if you’re a woodworker with limited resources.
It grows quickly for a tree – 30 years to full growth with some as old as 100 or more – and can be found at all elevations in Hawai‘i, in both dryland and wetland tropical forests. It grows best at high elevations and likes the sun. The most prized trees grow straight and tall – often as high as 115 feet – or even higher for old growth.
Koa is important for the environmental health of Hawai‘i: Its beautiful spreading canopy catches rain and mist, protecting watersheds and aquifers and sustaining the health of other native forest plants, endangered native birds and the Hawaiian hoary bat.
The name of the tree is also the word for brave and warrior in the Hawaiian language, which is just one more indicator of its importance in Hawaiian culture.
All of that makes the story of koa immensely complex and provides a huge challenge to the state agencies that manage koa. The state Department of Land and Natural Resources, or DLNR, and its Division of Forestry and Wildlife, or DOFAW, face a constant balancing act between making some koa available for use now and in the future, and reforesting state land with koa to strengthen the watershed.
Bob Masuda, deputy director of DLNR, says that without the koa and ‘ōhi‘a trees, more water would run off into the ocean, carrying soil with it.
“The most important thing for us is the recovery of our watershed,” says Masuda. “Our aquifer (on O‘ahu) is going negative, not positive. There are too many people on this island. The freshwater level is not where it should be, so we are working desperately to increase two things. One is increasing the forest by replanting, or increasing the health of our forests by planting healthy trees, or replacing invasive trees with healthy trees, and two is removing roaming animals.”
“Koa and ōhi‘a fulfill the same role,” says DOFAW administrator David Smith. “Half of the water is cloud drip blowing through. There’s actual data that shows that as forests expand, so does the ability of land to gather water and retain it.”
Koa is far from endangered, but DOFAW controls any cutting on state land, which is limited to careful pruning and thinning of fallen, dead or dying trees, Smith says.
“You need a permit to cut koa, and it needs to be done in a manner prescribed by DOFAW so it protects the forests. It’s a highly supervised practice, sometimes in an area where it needs to be pruned out. It’s not like, ‘Hey, you can go and cut koa anyplace.’ ”
It’s difficult to determine the exact number of acres with koa but there are 215,000 acres of forest statewide – including state, federal and private lands – with koa as a dominant tree, according to data from Irene Sprecher, DOFAW forestry program manager.
Sprecher estimates there are from 8 million to 16 million koa trees statewide. And state and private landowners are continually replanting koa. For instance, McCandless Ranch in South Kona is replanting with more koa, and has about 1,500 acres in its koa belt. Kealakekua Ranch, also in South Kona, is replanting a couple of thousand acres with koa.
DOFAW forestry planner Jan N. Pali says, “In the last 10 years DOFAW has planted 170,000 koa seedlings, primarily on Maui and Hawai‘i Island, covering approximately 10,000 acres. The majority of this koa was outplanted for watershed protection and not for timber production.”
Pali says much reforestation has already been done on O‘ahu, primarily with non-native trees during the mid- 20th century, but also by early foresters planting koa and ‘ōhi‘a on a smaller scale.
For instance, native trees will be planted in the Helemano area on land recently acquired by the state. A community-based planning process for the area has begun.
State Botanist Matthew J. Keir, who works to regenerate threatened and endangered species, knows the value of koa but doesn’t work with it simply because it’s not in danger.
“It’s a foundational tree in the forests, and it’s super important to all the rest of the ecosystem,” says Keir. “My programs don’t target koa because it’s really common and very sound.”
“It’s not even close to being endangered,” agrees Peter Simmons, a longtime Big Island forestry expert who helped found the Hawai‘i Forest Industry Association 30 years ago to help manage the state’s forest resources. Simmons also helped found the nonprofit Hawai‘i Forest Institute to fund educational and scientific projects.
Simmons says koa reseeds itself easily, grows fast, and seeds can remain viable in the soil for as long as 50 years. Working the soil can bring them quickly to life.
What isn’t clear is how much koa can be harvested now while maintaining a sustainable supply for future generations. That’s why Simmons and Nick Koch, president of the Hawai‘i Forest Industry Association, are working together on a plan.
The two longtime forestry professionals are working with the state and private landowners to make more koa available for woodworkers now while keeping it sustainable for the future.
“Peter and I are working on a project to keep a stable supply of koa out there in the market,” says Koch. “That would be about 400-600 trees a year, or about 120,000 board feet a year consistently.”
They are working with the government and two companies, Paniolo Tonewoods and Kamuela Hardwoods, to cut some koa for the local market, he says.
“The state put out a small sale of 10,000 board feet from the Kona area and we hope we can continue to work with them.
“That doesn’t mean cheap wood. It’s not free. They have to pay market prices,” Koch says.
The collaboration is called the Kama‘āina Wood Market, and buyers must be members of the Hawai‘i Forest Industry Association.
Koch and Simmons know many local woodworkers can’t compete with big Mainland companies that buy whole containers of logs, each around 4,000 board feet at a cost of $40,000 to $80,000. But they could purchase a pallet with about 100 board feet, priced around $2,000.
Much of the guidance for Koa’s future is laid out in the state’s Koa Action Plan that was created about five years ago by state and federal forestry agencies, UH experts and private foresters. The plan recognized the tree’s environmental, cultural and economic value.
“Koa is Hawai‘i’s premier timber species, contributing the majority of the state’s $30 million/year forest products industry,” the plan says. “It also provides one of the most valuable woods in the world. … The goal for sustainable forestry is to provide a win-win-win situation by simultaneously promoting conservation, economic development, and cultural enhancement.”
The economic value of koa alone is likely upward of $30 million now, say state DLNR officials, and that could grow with a steady supply.
A new Koa Action Plan is in the works, but many projects in the existing plan remain. Many include how to convert now fallow sugar and grazing lands into koa forests – basically returning the land to its original state.
“We all want to see the best for all the forests we have. The question is how do we get there and what’s the best way.”
– Peter Simmons, Co-Founder, Hawaiʻi Forest Industry Association and Hawaiʻi Forest Institute
While there were funding issues four or five years ago, says Masuda, last year the state Legislature budgeted $4 million to DLNR for forest management, with another $6 million provided in the 2019 session, followed by an additional $6 million next year.
“We’re going to be replanting and fencing, or restoring the fences in our most important watershed areas,” says Masuda. “The more we nurture and protect our forests and our watershed, the more we protect our own lives.”
What is also happening, says Simmons and Koch, is a reevaluation of the responsibilities of the private sector, especially large-scale koa buyers.
“Koa is moving toward this idea of ‘What are you doing for the forest?’” says Koch. “One of the things that Paniolo Tonewoods brought to the table was stewardship contracting, i.e., exchanging services, such as fencing, planting and tending to the trees.”
The Koa Action Plan suggests the possibility of using investment in koa forests as a potential way to develop a carbon exchange plan. Just in the last few months the state has put in motion the first stages of developing a carbon exchange program, launching a project to set sequestration standards. Koa forests do sequester carbon, which makes them a resource to diminish greenhouse gases that are causing climate change.
The goal would be to “develop carbon markets for koa forestry to offset carbon emissions and to provide economic incentives for private investment in koa forestry, and to fund forest management on public lands,” according to the plan.
Both state and private forestry officials say the strength of what’s happening today is how well different organizations are working together to enhance the koa forests.
The state’s Forest Stewardship Program, for instance, shares costs with private landowners who want to do native forest reforestation to make koa available as a future resource.
“If they’re a private landowner and interested in doing forestry, they can come into the program and develop a management plan,” says DOFAW’s Sprecher. “If it’s approved they can apply for cost share support, and technical support. It helps people get over that initial financial threshold.”
Last year alone 170 landowners connected with the program about forest management projects, says Sprecher. To date 30,880 acres are enrolled in the program.
“We all want to see the best for all the forests we have,” adds Simmons. “The question is how do we get there and what’s the best way? I’ve seen people really contributing in a community way. It’s not just people saying, ‘How can I make money on that tree?’; it’s people saying, ‘What’s the right thing to do.’ ”
Martin & MacArthur: A 60-Year Legacy of Fine Koa Furniture
CEO says no live trees are cut – only trees that are fallen, dead or dying
In the cavernous 35,000-square-foot Martin & MacArthur workshop in Kalihi, Bach Nguyen leans over a 2-by-4-foot piece of Acacia koa – its proper name – moving a small hand-sander back and forth, back and forth, smoothing the board that will become the top of a dresser.
His right hand works the sander, his left leans on the board, feeling for texture, measuring the smoothness with the practiced touch of a master craftsman.
For 25 years Nguyen has worked here as one of the company’s 30 craftsmen – each with their own “bench” space in the warehouse workshop that produces handmade koa furniture.
The same craftsman chooses the wood, cuts it, sands each piece and assembles the finished product, sometimes taking over a week for a single piece of furniture. Each piece gets three final sandings and two coats of clear lacquer before the finished product is minutely inspected by finisher Fernando Serrao.
“We’ve been doing this longer than any furniture maker in the state, even before Hawai‘i was a state,” says CEO Michael Tam, who took the helm at Martin & MacArthur 11 years ago and dramatically expanded its offerings from only furniture. Today, Martin & MacArthur produces about 250 koa products, including around 100 furniture designs, produced by their craftsmen, and another 200 products purchased from other Hawai‘i artisans. Their products include pens, watchbands, Christmas ornaments, clocks, bookmarks and serving boards, as well as their iconic rocking chairs, dining tables, dressers and beds.
“We are the No. 1 koa user in the world,” says Tam.
He says Martin & MacArthur refurbished classic koa features at ‘Iolani Palace back in the 1970s, including the staircase and replicas of some of the fine palace furniture. Today, Martin & MacArthur ships its creations around the world.
“The vast majority of what we do is koa because that’s what Hawai‘i prizes, and that’s what we’re known for,” says Tam.
He says the company has always sourced its koa from a private unnamed landowner on Hawai‘i Island, using the equivalent of about 11 trees a year, all fallen, dead or dying. No live trees are cut, says Tam. While koa is not endangered, private landowners are less willing than they were 10 or 20 years ago to sell from their forests, unless the koa forests need thinning, or the trees need pruning or have toppled, says Tam.
“We don’t want to be responsible for any live koa trees being cut. After 80 years or so, a lot end up dying or toppling over. …There are more trees dying in a month than what we go through in a year,” he says.
Across the way from Nguyen in the Martin & MacArthur workshop, master craftsman Chuck Dominguez is carefully stacking measured and cut sides of koa boxes. “The grains match up so they wrap around a corner,” says Dominguez, the specialist making the 1,000 to 1,200 boxes that the company sells every year.
Past Dominguez, Don Heim is fashioning the backs of its “Moana” dining chairs. As the company’s chair specialist, Heim produces about 50 dining chairs a year and about 50 rockers, with each taking about a week of work and selling for about $4,700 apiece.
Nearby, Sau Hy handles tables, desks, beds and display cases. He has worked with wood for 40 years, 20 of them with Martin & MacArthur. Today, he is finishing a headboard for a king-size bed frame that will be shipped to the Mainland.
In this tour of the workshop, Tam stops at a long row of koa boards, each at least 10 feet long, leaning against a wall, waiting to be chosen by one of the craftsmen for their next project. He takes a rag and dips it into a bucket of water and rubs it over a section of one of the boards, turning it from a pale dull gray to a rich red brown with a distinctive grain.
“We want wood that looks so gorgeous, like that,” says Tam. Only “curly koa” – dark red koa with a rippling wavy effect in the grain – is used for its products. Approximately 10 percent of koa has that wavy curl, says Tam, while the rest doesn’t have that rippling effect. As well, the color of the wood is different depending in which island it’s from. If grown on O‘ahu, for instance, the wood is greyish, says Tam; if grown on Kaua‘i it’s a lighter color.
Large pieces of the prized curly koa will become tables or dressers; the leftovers go into small items, down to thin bookmarks. “All the leftovers are used,” says Tam. “They used to throw that stuff away. The whole idea (now) is to use everything.”
At the workshop’s far end, two giant kilns dry the latest load of Big Island logs. Set at 110 degrees, the kiln will take 30 to 60 days to bring down the moisture in the wood to 8%, from 50% or 60%. A probe monitors the moisture level and giant fans keep air flowing inside the kilns.
The company has six master craftsmen with over 25 years of experience each; a dozen journeymen with 10 to 20 years of experience; and 10-12 apprentices with fewer than 10 years. Tam says Martin & MacArthur is the only company in Hawai‘i with an apprenticeship program for furniture makers and has trained craftsmen “for 20 years on how to make furniture to our specs.”
For instance, workshop foreman Guy Leslie joined the company 31 years ago as a 17-year-old high school graduate. “We’re looking for young men and women who are good with their hands and have a passion for furniture,” says Tam. “They don’t have to have any background. We are going to put them through a program and they will learn to do everything.”
Nursery Grows Native Species to Rebuild Forests
On 4 acres of leased land on the slopes of Haleakalā about 50,000 indigenous Hawai‘i seedlings are growing in controlled nursery conditions. One-third are koa seedlings, and some of those are elite selective koa seedlings.
Native Nursery is owned by horticulturist Ethan Romanchak and botanist Jonathan Keyser; it’s been growing koa and about 30 to 40 other native species since 2003 for everyone from the state to home gardeners. The two men are committed to seeing native species thrive.
Thousands of their koa seedlings have been planted all over the state in reforestation efforts by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and private landowners.
“Koa are the fastest and easiest thing to grow,” explains Romanchak. “We can produce tens of thousands fairly easily from seed. That takes up most of our nursery bench width. It’s easy to sprout the seedlings and in four to six months they can go out the door at 3 to 4 feet.”
State botanist Matthew J. Keir, who handles rare and endangered plant species for the state, says the Maui nursery does a lot of growing for the state.
“Ethan and Jonathan grow koa by the thousands. Whenever we do reforestation we give them the seeds and they grow them out for us,” Keir says.
That’s the standard way private landowners also reforest – by providing the seeds, says Romanchak. That way new seedlings are a close match to the trees already on the land, helping to ensure their future success.
Especially at lower elevations, koa is vulnerable to koa wilt disease, other diseases and a variety of insects. But koa does especially well at higher elevations where the cold kills both insects and disease.
“It’s meant to be up in a cold forest,” says Romanchak. “If you’re over 3,500 feet elevation you’re much better off. …There’s zero disease at 5,000 feet. It’s cold enough so the disease-cycle can’t take hold and kill the trees.
“If there wasn’t a disease issue it would be ideal to do forestry down low. Right now it’s not economically feasible because of the loss to disease on old sugarcane soil, until someone cracks the code and is able to supply truly disease-resistant seeds.”
There is ongoing scientific work in developing disease-resistant seed, says Romanchak, but success can be a long time coming because of the time it takes to grow the trees to test the seed.
The nursery is working with Haleakala Ranch on an innovative elite seedling program to develop trees with the desirable curly grain; or a straight grain – which is referred to as select koa – and can be combined with a curly grain in the same board; and a rich heartwood to sapwood ratio. Sapwood is the weaker outer area of the trunk, while heartwood is the highly valued interior. The curly grain koa is about 10 percent of the wood available and considered the most desirable.
The ranch recently harvested 150 trees from two koa groves planted years ago under the supervision of then Hawai‘i first lady Jean Ariyoshi, and Romanchak and Keyser carefully tracked each log through the milling process. They identified which stumps the most desirable wood came from.
“The top 30 were chosen out of each 150 and we have found those trees and taken cuttings from them,” says Romanchak. “With those cuttings from the mother trees, we’ve been tracking and propagating them and now we’re planting those back out on the ranch so we can watch and sample them in 10, 20 and 30 years from now to prove or disprove that traits such as curly koa are genetic.”
So far about 60 of these elite trees have been planted on 4 acres of the ranch. Romanchak says the test forest will become too dense and they or other workers will thin it out and prune the trees, leaving only the best, “so that 30 years from now if someone wants to harvest the log, it is truly valuable.”
“(The State Forestry Division) has planted 170,000 koa seedlings, primarily on Maui and Hawaiʻi Island, covering approximately 10,000 acres.”
– Jan N. Pali, State Forestry Planner
How Koa Made a Comeback
Kamehameha Schools began koa reforestation long before the state did, says Peter Simmons, a founder of the Hawai‘i Forest Industry Association and the Hawaiʻi Forest Institute.
“The leader in reclaiming of lands with koa has been Kamehameha Schools. They were experimenting replanting with koa in 1931 in Hōnaunau forest (in South Kona),” he says. “There were several trustees who were strong advocates. Then in 1976 the first koa restoration started in Keauhou Ranch in Ka‘ū and Pinky Thompson, then a Kamehameha trustee, had a lot to do with that. There’s been continuous interest in reforestation with koa from 1976.”
Twenty years after the 1976 projects, Thompson’s son, Nainoa, raised the alarm again, just about the time large landowners were also growing wary of how much koa was being cut, says Nick Koch, president of the Hawai‘i Forest Industry Association.
“The landowners started saying ‘Hey, this native forest is running out.’ And, it could have been a watershed moment when Nainoa Thompson couldn’t find a log (big enough and healthy enough) to build the canoe Hawai‘iloa,” Koch says.
Although koa prices have skyrocketed, the wood hasn’t always been pricey – especially when it wasn’t well-known outside of Hawai‘i.
“At one point in the ’70s and ’80s it was selling for less than pine,” says Koch. But when landowners began limiting the supply, prices rose, plus land-use redistricting was also beginning to reshape koa’s future. Areas were rezoned as conservation, and landowners reduced cuttings in general out of concern for supply. Also cutting was not allowed on areas zoned conservation.
“At some point, the large landowners said, ‘We need to slow down on this and rethink.’ The large sawmill in Hilo closed and several closed in South Kona, and the demand started falling off,” Koch says.
“You no longer could take a large sum out year-round, with only cutting the best wood and throwing the rest away.”
Sugar cane’s phase out on Hawai‘i Island in the 1990s allowed for the biggest pivot toward restoring koa. Cattle and koa were identified as two key replacements for the island’s agricultural economy but they can’t coexist because cattle trample and eat koa seedlings.
“The biggest threat to the koa forest these days is cattle and sheep along with fire,” explains Koch.
Today, managing animals and koa is one of the biggest challenges facing landowners and forestry officials.