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Success Stories: Ho'omau Ranch

USDA NRCS Partners with Ho’omau Ranch and the State Forest Stewardship Program to Protect Rare Hawaiian Forest Habitat

The 1,600-acre Ho‘omau Ranch is located in the South Kona District of the Big Island, and is owned and managed by Ms. Kamaile Rafaelovich – a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Cooperator.  The ranch falls within the Agriculture District where current zoning laws authorize many uses: livestock grazing including forest clearing, cultivation of crops, and timber harvesting.  The potential for other commercial developments also include wind energy facilities, golf courses and subdivision for housing development with a minimum lot size of five acres for agricultural uses.

The ranch lies within a region of South Kona that includes several important large set-asides for ecosystem protection: South Kona Forest Reserve, Kipahoehoe and Manuka Natural Area Reserves, The Nature Conservancy’s Kona Hema Preserve, and Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park.  Collectively, these lands retain enough biodiversity to ensure ecosystem recovery and prevent biodiversity losses that normally occur in volcanically active regions.

Historically, Ho‘omau Ranch was covered by two different native forest communities: Kona Wet Forest, and a drier, transitional variant of Kona Wet Forest known as Mixed Mesic Forest.  Much of the ranch forests were cleared starting in the early 1960’s to open them up for cattle grazing and establish macadamia nut orchards.  At that time, the ranch was managed by George Schattauer who developed the property for the owner, Hollywood actor James Stewart.

While clearing the land, Schattauer, who had an interest in native plants, came across several extremely tall native loulu (palm) trees.  Recognizing the significance of these trees - some towering more than 100 feet tall - he left them standing.  The species was later formally described by Donald Hodel who named it Pritchardia schattaueri, in honor of George Schattauer – Ho’omau Ranch currently contains twelve of the fourteen last known individuals of this trees species.  According to Hodel, Schattauer’s Loulu is one of the tallest, largest, rarest, and most majestic loulu.  It is listed as Endangered by USFWS and Critically Endangered by IUCN, and the population on Ho‘omau Ranch is an officially designated Exceptional Tree of Hawai‘i.

In the heart of Ho‘omau Ranch lies the 235-acre Martín Paddock – the rarest and most ecologically valuable native forest resource in the area.  According to Jon Giffin, a retired wildlife biologist with the State of Hawaii’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife (DOFAW) who conducted the biological inventory, this forest community appears to be the last representative of its type on Hawai‘i Island and possibly in the state - the others having been cleared for agriculture.  It is also home to the endangered wildlife species: Ōpe‘ape‘a (Hawaiian Hoary Bat) and ‘Io (Hawaiian Hawk).

In 2011 Kamaile purchased Ho’omau Ranch from developers who intended to subdivide portions of the land into smaller parcels.  With a deep appreciation for the uniqueness of her property and a strong desire to protect its natural resources, Kamaile began searching for partners who could assist her in managing the Martín Paddock.  She was guided to the Hawaii Forest Stewardship Program (FSP) which is administered by DOFAW and supported by the US Forest Service (USFS).  Through the FSP she was able to develop a 10-year Forest Stewardship Management Plan for her native forest lands.  The plan provides a long-term road map for key objectives, needs and conservation practices required to maintain and enhance the native forest resources in Martín Paddock.

It is well-documented that feral pigs are the leading cause of degradation in Hawaiian forest ecosystems. The damage they cause includes ground disturbance, soil erosion, loss of ground cover vegetation, and the inhibition of native plant regeneration.  Years of degradation of the Martín Paddock by a large pig population, supported by the macadamia nut orchards that surround the ranch, and exacerbated by cattle ingress from adjacent grazing operations, had denuded the forest’s groundcover and resulted in diminished diversity of the understory.  Encroachment of invasive weeds concurrently increased due to these activities.  This prolonged pressure stopped natural native forest regeneration and began the process of destroying this unique native forest.  Threats to the forest became all the more urgent with the discovery of another critically endangered and nearly extinct tree, mehamehame (Fleuggea neowawraea), of which fewer than 50 individuals are known to occur in the wild.

NRCS, DOFAW, USFS and the Hawaii Association of Conservation Districts cooperatively deliver private landowner technical and financial assistance for forestry projects in Hawaii.  Kamaile was able to apply to the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) using her approved FSP forest management plan.  She received assistance with achieving her first pressing objective – installing fencing to protect the environmentally sensitive native forest in the Martín Paddock – which was successfully completed in May, 2017.  The EQIP conservation plan also includes provisions to remove invasive weeds, and accelerate native forest ecosystem restoration via the conservation practices Tree/Shrub Site Preparation, Tree/Shrub Establishment, and Upland Wildlife Habitat Management.

With the support from NRCS EQIP, Kamaile has successfully achieved her first major strides in her efforts to be a visionary and proactive steward of native forest resources in Hawai‘i through this highly cooperative effort with Ho’omau Ranch and our agency partners.  NRCS is proud of Kamaile’s conservation efforts that support native animals, plants, and insects, as well as watershed-scale ecosystem values, while mitigating serious ecosystem degradation from environmental threats and development pressure.

Additional partners will continue to assist with this important project: The Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i, who played a key role in keeping the cost of the fence down by brokering a lease with an adjacent landowner and providing equipment for the fence prep, will also help with pig removal and wildlife monitoring; the Plant Extinction Prevention Program will help with endangered plant propagation and reintroduction; and a conservation easement for perpetual protection under the Hawai‘i Forest Legacy Program is currently being considered.

Hoomau Ranch - Forest Stewardship