Puako Kiawe Forest: An Opportunity for Leeward Hawaii Island

By: Neil Logan







Region Location:


On the leeward coast of the Big Island of Hawaii, the north edge of the Kīholo lava plain, and at the base of 4 of the 5 mountains that comprise the island, there is a unique microclimate—hot, dry, and sunny, with deep, nutritionally rich soil deposits and abundant groundwater. The site elevation ranges from 220-30.





The land is located in a flood plain. Three gulches feed the Flood Plain bringing fine powdery glacial till down from Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.



This soil is mineral rich, yet low in organic matter, and highly erodible by wind. Tsunamis have brought coral sand into the flood, making a heavy mix of till and sand. The soil is very rich, but a high pH makes it difficult for most traditional agricultural crops to flourish.



Situated immediately off shore to Puakō are world renowned AA water and coral reefs that provide critical environmental elements for survival of primary feeders and reef life that are the bases of the oceanic food chain. This fact alone has been acknowledged and has received consideration for protection by county and state agencies.


Wind and Hydrology

There is a consistent trade wind blowing in from the North East. Winds are diurnal, generally blowing onshore in the day and offshore at night. Kona winds blow from the south a few days each year. Rainfall averages less than 10 per year. Water runs down the surface and subsurface of the mountain slopes through this basin. Fresh water flows at a rate of between 3-7 mega gallons per coastal mile per day, below Puako. The water carries micronutrients that feed forests and reefs below.


Historical Land Use


Native Forest

Before the arrival of humans this area was forested by Loulu palms (Prichardia affinis), Willi Willi (Erythrina sp.), Koaia (Acacia koaia), Sandalwoods (Santalum spp.) and more. There are currently no native species on the land. It is possible to return this area to native forest, using kiawe as a nurse tree.  Examples of this can be seen in Wailea Bay and Honokahau.


Fishing Village

The fishing village falls in the Lalamilo and Kalāhuipuaa Ahupuaas, and subsisted largely on dry taro, sweet potatoes, and Limu seaweed.  The forested lands above the fishing village were harvested under increasing pressure for Sandalwood and pastureland. The Puako reef was known as one of the best spots for octopus, and a known source of potable water.


Sugar Cane

Large amounts of water were diverted to Puako for agriculture, specifically Sugar Cane, from whence the name Puako (Sugar Cane or Flower of Ko) derives.  Access to that water vanished with the loss of the sandalwood forests.



The Parker Ranch fattened the cattle in Puako during the winter months when there was grass, and in the summer months during the pod season. Once fattened, usually within 2 months, the cows were shipped off to market. Puako was an important resource for cattle drives along the leeward coast of the big island due to the presence of high quality water and kiawe pods (Paris 2006). Cattle played a vital role in the establishment of kiawe forests throughout Hawaii. Cows, horses, donkeys spread kiawe, while the pigs, sheep and goats control it.



The Kiawe fruits and honey are healthy foods, with growing demand. Bee keeping began in Puako to enhance fruit production; the honey was a wonderful byproduct. In the late 1930s and early 40s, Hawaii was the largest exporter of honey in the world. Most of the honey came from Kiawe, and most of that came from Puako, HI and leeward Molokai (Luce 2006). Puako is considered the Terroir of the White Honey produced by Volcano Island Honey Company (Spiegel 04). This honey has been rated one of the best in the world. There is a world Bee crisis currently occurring as bees all over the world, and especially in the US, are spontaneously and mysteriously dying (Shumate 2007). The Puako Kiawe forest is highly productive bee forage habitat with global implications.


Alternative Crops

Watermelons, corn, pigs, alfalfa, grapefruits and mangos have been attempted with varying degrees of success. Sugar Cane, Kiawe, Cattle, and Honey are the most successful agricultural endeavors in Puako thus far.


Origins of Forest

Cows eating pods from the kiawe wind break spread the viable seed all over the flood plain (Thevine 2006). Kiawe has been dropping seeds, which remain viable for at least 50 years, in Puako for nearly 100 years.



Wildfire Threats and Mitigation



In drought, the trees often die back, leaving dry wood suspended amongst tall, dry buffel and fountain grasses. Without a fuels management strategy the land becomes a fire hazard. Fire kills kiawe outright. The forest has sustained several wildfires, mostly in the last 3 decades. Recently, arson started 9 fires along the Kohala coast burning large portions of Kiawe / buffel grass range land and coastal forest. Ground fires were set from grasses along the road, which climbed into the canopy and spread across the forest rapidly. Fires like these can be prevented via a combinate strategy of re-vegetation and fuels reduction.


Firebreaks and Fire Mitigation Program

The site is in a key position to prevent future wildfires in the surrounding location by doing fire mitigation and establishing living firebreaks. If done correctly, a Fire Mitigation Program will help make the community a safer place, and protect the forest.



The property is located entirely in a flood plain. This imposes restrictions to the land use, and great responsibility with regard to potential consequences of activities on the land, and especially as relating to underground water and the reef.



Most of the land is in a moderate erosion potential zone, and the southern portion is in a high erosion potential zone. This is potentially exacerbated by the lack of coverage of the soil via roots, which hold the soil, and canopy, which buffers the wind.



Statistics on Kiawe (Prosopis pallida) in Hawaii, with emphasis on Puako:


State Coverage of Kiawe:

       Hawaii State Kiawe coverage peaked circa 1962 with ~150,000 acres.

       Last surveyed circa 1997 was ~99,000 acres.


Number of acres of past contiguous forest: (Hawaii island only)

       ~150,000 acres before 1960.


Number of acres in Puako before 2007 burn:

       428 acres of private land.

       1000 acres of public land.


Number of acres in Puako currently:

       700 acres on lava.

       300 acres in deep soil.

       68-100 acres on private land with soil.

       Total =1,100 acres.


Productivity potential of Kiawe in Puako:

       High Productivity Tress - 300 acres growing in deep soil.

       Low Productivity Trees – 700 acres growing on lava.


Yield of high productivity: wood, honey, pods, et al.

       Wood – 35,816 tons.

       Pods –  1,210 tons.

       Honey – 4.95 tons.


Yield of low productivity acres: wood, honey, pods, et al.

       Wood – 23,100 tons.

       Pods – 2,800 tons.

       Honey – 2.38 tons.


Current potential of total public forest:

       Wood:  ~ 59,000 tons.

       Pods: ~ 4,000 tons.

       Honey: ~ 7 tons.


Fire Mitigation Program: employable people/time:

       4-6 years to complete

       60-80 employees initially, with hiring cycles every 13 years.

       The program can pay for itself with a $9M surplus over 6 years.

       8-35 full time employees


Revenue potential/product over time:

       $1.5-3 M/yr – pod products

       $600K-1.5 M/yr – honey products

       $300K-1.3 M/yr – wood (after Fire Mitigation Program)

       Total = $2.5-4.3 M/yr industry



The Long-Range View


Develop the Puako region as a premier agricultural site (with cultural and educational components) for leeward Hawaii.  Install living firebreaks and transition the lava areas to native plants, conserve and expand deep soil areas for energy and food security. Use a succession agroforestry strategy to build a specialty industry on Hawaiian native plant products like Sandalwood (Santlalum sp.) nut butter (after 5-7 years) and wood (after 30 years), Alaheʻe (Psydrax sp.) flower essences and essential oil, and specialty honeys. Develop aquaculture using kiawe pods as feed for fish then sell the fish locally to resorts, communities, etc.


Puako can currently provide calories (including protein) for 3,700 people/year (~2% island population). It can provide energy to power its own management and produce value added products for sale or electricity for people in the community. Through the Fire Mitigation Program, enough electricity for ~55,000 people can be provided by the forest and after, enough electricity for ~17,000 people annually is possible. Comparing kiawe wood as an energy source on a BTU by BTU basis @ $4.78/gal, kiawe competes with diesel. The wood sustainably harvested from the leeward coast of Hawaii Island to 100 feet elevation could provide electricity for 1 million people annually.


Kiawe could contribute significantly to state food and energy security via pods and wood respectively. Currently in Hawaii State, 99,000 acres can produce 160,000 tons/yr of pod flour on average, or enough to feed 151,779 people/yr (min.) to 320,000 people/yr (max.) If the resource were fully developed to its total maximum potential, kiawe from Hawaii Island could feed 1.3 million people/yr.  The wholesale value of the pod flour from this industry could also be worth $3.2B/yr or $1.3B/yr as ETOH USP.


Potential Outcomes


       Natural Resources managed in a way that pays for their management.

       Food and energy security.

       An unparalleled living laboratory for the education of future generations.




Neil Logan 2011 All Rights Reserved.


Neil Logan       Neil@rnl3.net              www.rnl3.net                808-640-3588

Po Box 551754

Kapaau, Hawaii 96755