Ka Moolelo o Waihee: A Lost Landscape

Beginning approximately 12,000 years ago, glacial retreat and rising sea levels brought about the emergence of our familiar island coastlines.  Maui, Molokai, and Lanai once again became the three independent islands they are today, and the ecosystems that would dominate Waihee for the next 10,000 years began to evolve.  The landforms we now see were taking shape even then; the dunes surrounding the wetlands and the lines of our modern-day coast were already recognizable.  The most significant differences between the landscape of Waihee in the early Holocene period and that of today are found in the dramatic changes in the local flora and fauna. Of course, we can never be certain what the exact composition of this wahi pana was so many thousands of years ago, but glimpses of the past do become clearer from quality time spent on the land and in the laboratory. 

Sediment cores drawn from the Kapoho wetlands in 2018 have provided scientists with one of the best of these glimpses into the ecological history of Waihee, revealing data from around 12,000 years ago through the present day.  Sections of these sediment cores were sent to England for analysis at the University of Leicester’s Palaeoecology Laboratory.  While many different evidentiary threads must be woven together to create a tapestry of the pre-human ecology of the Waihee refuge, pollen analysis (palynology) has given us the most complete information to date.

Waihee is not an ideal environment for sediment core analysis, for several reasons.  First, the wetlands regularly dried out during the kauwela (hot season), long before the first humans arrived.  While pollen can survive for tens of thousands of years (or longer) when rapidly buried under sediment, desiccation (drying-out) destroys pollen grains.  Second, the distance between ocean and wetlands is very short.  Since the wind blows from the ocean onto the land, we can be relatively certain that what we find in the wetlands did come from the immediate area, but not much pollen comes from the direction of the sea.  Finally, pollen are incredibly tiny, and certain soil types, particularly sandy ones, do not hold pollen well at all.  Because so much sand had blown in during the previous ice age (starting around 20,000 years ago), pollen did not collect easily in the wetlands.  Sadly, most fell through the larger spaces between grains of sand, thereby making collection and analysis impossible.

However, all was not lost. This core analysis provided valuable insights into the ancient (paleo) ecology of Waihee.  Additionally, in the summer of 2019, we developed a new method of extracting pollen from another dateable source: the interior of crab claws (more on them later).  This involved extracting sediment from the abundant remains of crab claws belonging to an extinct species of land crab (Geograpsus severnsi).  The process proved to be both incredibly simple and extremely effective: when a crab dies, the interior of its shell fills quickly with sediment.  In short order, the entire crab is buried and preserved for long periods of time.  As the thickest and most durable part of their exoskeleton, the dactyls (claws) are preserved so well that recent dating from the Waihee Refuge has found intact 1,800-year-old specimens that looked as if they’d been buried last month.  It took an interested party only a few minutes with a toothpick to bore this sediment out into a bag, repeat that about fifty times, and send it off to England for analysis.  Pollen collection and preservation from these dactyls gave us a remarkable quantity of pollen specimens to observe under the microscope. 

While other means and strategies for uncovering the historical ecology of Waihee exist, our current understanding of the structure, composition, and biodiversity of the refuge in the millennia preceding human arrival comes primarily from this pollen analysis.  As technology evolves and new scientific methods develop, we will undoubtedly be able to gain an ever better sense of the ecological history of Waihee.  As I shall describe below, our knowledge of the avifauna (birds) on the refuge before people arrived remains almost entirely speculative. 

What we have found, particularly about the floral history of the refuge, has both confirmed some of our previously held suspicions regarding pre-human ecology and revealed some surprises. For instance, several common species, apparently abundant millennia ago, are no longer found anywhere near the Waihee Refuge.  The dominant plant species, found in greater numbers than all other species combined, was the Loulu (Pritchardia) palm.  It is an unfortunate fact of pollen analysis that it cannot be reduced down to the species level, but we can easily see that the pollen of the Loulu dominated the ecosystem.  Paleoecologists generally acknowledge that when one genera or species makes up more than 75% of all the pollen in a given area, a closed-canopy ecosystem is created.  We can say with a high degree of confidence that Pritchardia dominated the area around the Kapoho wetlands. 

Walking through Kapoho 10,000, or 6,000--or probably even as recently as 1,000 years ago--would have felt like walking through a dense coastal forest of Loulu fan palms, right up to the edge of the wetlands, where it would have abruptly transitioned to a sedge-covered series of spring-fed bogs.  During the hooilo (wet season), it likely would have had the look and feel of a lake, while during the kauwela (hot season, or summer), a patchy series of ponds would likely have dominated the 27 acres of the wetlands.  It is impossible to know which types of sedges would have dominated, some of which may now be extinct, but considering their current persistence, it is easy to envision a combination of Kaluha (Bolboschoenus maritimus) and ‘Ahu ‘Awa (Cyperus javanicus) dominating, with a diverse group of other sedges present. 

The pollen record suggests that the dunes were dominated by a number of species, in particular ohe makai (Polyscias sandwicensis), probably with Kauila (Colubrina sp.) co-dominant.  The mid-elevations of the dunes were very likely dominated by Aweoweo (Chenopodium sandwicencse), a popular nesting material for seabirds (more on them later), while the upper reaches of the 200-foot-high dunes were dominated by a yet-to-be-determined species of grass, but possibly Kawelu (Erograstis variablis).

There are two critical points to remember regarding these speculations. First, diversity was the order of the day.  The plants noted above are those we are reasonably certain dominated this area.  However, also as noted, sometimes pollen fails to preserve, and some plants produce only a small amount of pollen, rendering them invisible to analysis.  Palynology (pollen analysis) can reveal the plants that were present and provide insight into dominant species, but it can also miss those that were less common or that did not produce a sufficient abundance of pollen to be visible today, such as plants that rely on insect pollinators and therefore produce substantially less pollen than wind pollinated plants.  Second, while relying on the insights of experts in the field of Hawaiian ecology to paint a picture of the pre-human ecosystem, much remains speculative.  I liken this to trying to bake a cake with some of the ingredients and partial fragments of the whole recipe. 

Birds make up the conspicuously missing part of the Waihee Refuge today.  While scientists often describe Hawai`i as the extinction capital of the world, with species continuing to decline and disappear into the present day, the historical record paints an even more grim picture of species loss.  At least 77 species of Hawaiian birds have become extinct in the last 700 years, more than any other place on earth.  While the reasons for this decline have been studied and documented for many years, the important role that these birds and other extinct species played in shaping Hawai`i’s terrestrial ecology could easily be overlooked.  Unfortunately, this delves into further speculative ecology, but if we hope to restore our ecosystems, such speculation is necessary. 

I should point out that we have found only sub-fossil (incompletely fossilized) remains of one bird species in the Waihee Dunes, and these were Uau kani (wedge-tailed shearwaters), a species that had still existed on the dunes until recently, when one careless dog owner allowed his pet to kill the last 12 individuals in a final, tragic episode for this incredible seabird.  We fervently hope to see them return to their home someday.  Seabirds would have dominated the landscape with their sheer numbers, especially on the dunes.  Any guesses at the population size would be conjecture, but in total, they could have numbered over one hundred thousand individuals or more.   Additional evidence gathered from other Maui sites suggests that the `Ua`u (Hawaiian petrel) population surpassed that of the Uau kani.  Future research might help us better understand the species composition, and perhaps the size of that population, but for now we are restricted to the use of imagination and inference until further evidence surfaces. 

Considering the size of the Kapoho wetlands (27 acres), it is reasonable to assume that waterbirds maintained a robust population there.  These would have included `Auku`u (black crowned night heron); Aeo (Hawaiian stilt); `Alae keokeo (Hawaiian coot), still present today; Alae ulaula (Hawaiian moorhen); Koloa (Hawaiian duck); Laysan teal; and Nene.  Several species of now extirpated (extinction from the local area) waterbirds would very likely have been present in substantial numbers, including the Nene Nui, or Greater Hawaiian Goose (Branta hylobadistes), and the Maui Nui Moa Nalo (Thambetochen chauliodus), descended from a more common duck species, which grew so large and robust on Maui that they lost their ability to fly.  The Maui flightless Ibis (Apteribis brevis) would have done well at what is now the Waihee Refuge, with its diet likely consisting of the land snails whose shell remains are found frequently in the dune deposits. 

Where there are prey species, there are predators.  The guild of predators, like their waterbird and seabird relatives, was comprised of a diverse array of species.  Bearing in mind that this remains highly speculative, it is reasonable to think that smaller predatory birds, such as the Maui Stilt Owl (Grallistrix erdmani), with its ability to snatch forest birds out of tree canopies with its long legs, either visited or called Waihee home.  The remains of a diverse array of predators, such as harriers (Circus sp.) and hawks (Buteo sp.), have been found on other islands, although such remains have yet to be discovered on Maui. 

One species that undoubtedly called Maui home was the Hawaiian Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla), a subspecies of the Eurasian White Tailed Eagle, whose remains were first discovered in the Ulupalakua area of Maui.  Recent research has demonstrated their presence in Hawai`i for at least 100,000 years, with resident populations on Maui, Molokai, and Oahu.  The Hawaiian Eagle very likely subsisted on the abundance of fish (similar to its cousin, the Bald Eagle) swimming in the coastal waters of Waihee, while plentiful bird life may have offered another edible option in the flightless birds who would have made for easy prey. 

Finally, the forest birds, now associated more with upper elevation forests,  could have been abundant across low elevations as well,  including the Waihee Refuge[1] [2] .  Taken together, all of the various species of seabirds and forest birds, waterfowl, predators and prey must have been an incredible sight to witness, especially for those of us with an affinity for birds.  The copious amounts of avian droppings would have fertilized the land, enriching the soil with nutrients, and encouraging life in its many variegated forms. 

However, the means by which each individual species thrived, not in spite of one another, but rather because of one another remains the most poignant aspect of this story.  Earlier, I mentioned the land crab, Geograpsus severnsi.  With a carapace about the size of an adult human palm, this not-especially-large crab had such a large population that it dramatically shaped the entire ecosystem of Waihee.  The G. severnsi, known within the trophic (food) web as a macrophages omnivore, consumed everything from dead birds and leaf litter to detritus washed ashore...and everything in between, for that matter. 

In fact, their abundance at Waihee seems overwhelming.  Several transects I have done on the dune revealed fragments of these land crabs every two or three feet; their role in the maintenance of the refuge was critical.  Studies of land crabs elsewhere demonstrate that their constant consumption of detritus, including low hanging leaves and branches, allows birds to move about more freely and gain access to areas where they then add nutrients from their droppings to the otherwise nutritionally depauperate soil of the landscape.  Seabirds in particular have an aversion to extremely dense vegetation, and so the symbiotic relationship between the G. severnsi and the seabirds was crucial.  Land crabs consumed vegetation obstructing the nesting habitat of the seabirds, while they in turn fertilized the soil for new plant growth.

 The extinction of these crabs seems to have occurred soon after the arrival of humans (probably due to a combination of factors, but largely that of the introduction of the Pacific Rat, or Rattus exulans).  It follows that a plummet in avian populations resulted from the direct influence of the same predators that eliminated G. severnsi, as well as the indirect influence of the passing of the crabs that brought about the transformation of vast areas of open ground into dense underbrush, unusable by the seabirds.

Understanding our past and that of the formation and function of our Hawaiian ecosystems serves a much greater purpose than pure speculative enjoyment.  As we face a climatically uncertain future, understanding and restoring the historical composition and activity of these ecosystems remains our most viable path to creating a healthy, sustainable, and resilient future.  Ecologists have known for many years that co-evolved species are more resilient in the face of natural disturbances like storms, rises in sea level, droughts and tsunamis.  Restoring our vulnerable ecosystems to whatever degree we are capable will grant us the best possible defense against such future disturbances.  By looking to the past, we can better prepare ourselves to face an unknown future, together. 

Geograpsus severnsi  claw found at Kalaekahoomano (Waihee) Point.

Geograpsus severnsi claw found at Kalaekahoomano (Waihee) Point.

Kuleana, Pilina, and Aina: Reflections from HILT's CEO Laura Kaakua

After three months with Hawaiian Islands Land Trust, I am humbled by the immense kuleana of the Land Trust. The duality of kuleana is that it is both an obligation and a privilege. We have existing kuleana to care for the six preserves which we own throughout the islands, and to annually monitor and enforce the terms of forty conservation easements restricting privately-owned land. These protected places include habitat for native and endangered species, wahi kupuna or places of our ancestors, and fertile lands that produce food that feeds our families. In the Hawaiian worldview, land is the chief, man is the servant, as passed down in the olelo noeau "he alii ka aina, he kauwa ke kanaka". Our kuleana can therefore sometimes feel heavy, but there is also great joy in the work.

That joy comes from HILT's role in facilitating connection or pilina to aina. I find joy witnessing passionate educators at Waihee Coastal Dunes and Wetland Refuge teaching Pomaikai Elementary School students about mauka-makai connections. I am filled with joy and pride listening to Hauula youth telling ancient stories of area navigators and whales at the base of Maunawila heiau. When a light rain falls as HILT Kauai Island Councilmember Mehana Vaughn and her children start to chant honoring the places of Kilauea that surround us by the Wai Koa Loop Trail, there is joy in the many unseen connections. There is also hopeful joy in working on future protection efforts such as with Kona community members to restore and protect sandalwood forest on former pasture land.

Welcoming community onto the lands we steward so that they can form, strengthen, and deepen their own pilina to aina is at the core of our work. Aina literally means that which feeds. Within our Hawaiian word for land exists the vital concept of reciprocity. If we take care of the land, it will feed, nourish and sustain current and future generations. Practicing reciprocity is how we form pilina to aina. The Land Trust's camping policy is an example of how we embed these practices in how we welcome people on the aina we steward. We welcome camping at HILT's Waihe'e and Nu'u, Maui lands, but before anyone can camp, they must volunteer on the aina. We give before we receive. Through working the land, volunteers begin to form their own pilina to aina, and when they camp, they see the land through a stewardship lens. Not only do they pick up after themselves, but they collect marine debris, and often jump in to help with other volunteer projects. In return, the aina provides through starry skies, waking up to the sound of waves and birds, and memories made with friends and family. As we care for the aina under our current stewardship, and look to protect other threatened special places, we will uphold our kuleana, and welcome communities to deepen their own pilina to aina.

Aloha Aina.

— Laura H. E. Kaakua, CEO

Accreditation Public Notice


Hawaiian Islands Land Trust is a nationally accredited land trust, recognized by the Land Trust Alliance. The land trust accreditation program recognizes land conservation organizations that meet national quality standards for protecting important natural places and working lands forever. Every five years, HILT voluntarily applies for re accreditation. This is important to HILT for a number of reasons including:

  • Fostering continued implementation of all of Land Trust Standards and Practices.

  • Adopting evolving best practices in the field.

  • Confirming compliance with current accreditation indicators and program requirements.

  • Verifying an accredited land trust’s action on expectations for improvement.

  • Identifying and evaluating major changes in accredited land trusts.

The Land Trust Accreditation Commission, an independent program of the Land Trust Alliance, conducts an extensive review of each applicant’s policies and programs.

HILT is pleased to announce it is applying for renewal of accreditation. A public comment period is now open.

The Commission invites public input and accepts signed, written comments on pending applications. Comments must relate to how HILT complies with national quality standards. These standards address the ethical and technical operation of a land trust. For the full list of standards see http://www.landtrustaccreditation.org/help-and-resources/indicator-practices.

To learn more about the accreditation program and to submit a comment, visit www.landtrustaccreditation.org, or email your comment to info@landtrustaccreditation.org.

Comments may also be faxed or mailed to: Land Trust Accreditation Commission, Attn: Public Comments: (fax) 518-587-3183; (mail) 36 Phila Street, Suite 2, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866.

Comments on HILT’s application will be most useful no later than July 15, 2019

We're Hiring!




Hawaiian Islands Land Trust is currently looking for an experienced Executive Assistant and Office Administrator. This position will play an integral role in the organizational strength of our nonprofit land trust. The Executive Assistant will provide administrative management support to the Chief Executive Officer, manage the Oahu office, assist the Development Director in donor communications and gift processing, assist the Chief Conservation Officer with communications, and answer and respond to calls and emails. Qualified candidates will have impeccable verbal and written communication skills, experience managing an office, experience managing schedules and competing demands of an executive, attention to detail, a proactive, self-driven work style, and will work well with the team.


●      Schedule meetings and coordinate the calendar of the CEO, and assist in managing communications of the CEO

●      Create and manage an organizational calendar

●      Assist in database management in coordination with the Director of Development to include gift entry and data management utilizing the organization’s CRM software

●      Assist the Chief Conservation Officer with schedule management and meeting follow-up

●      Coordinate staff meetings and consistent communication and collaboration of staff

●      Record dictation of staff to the database, following meetings, and conduct meeting follow-up

●      Conduct clerical duties, including filing, answering general phone calls, responding to general emails, expense reports, and preparing documents

●      Monitor and maintain office equipment; inventory supplies and order replacement supplies as needed

●      Create, update, and maintain personnel records, financial records, and other records/data

●      Perform accounting tasks, including invoicing, budget tracking, coordination with the organization’s book keeper, and making deposits

●      Assist with travel arrangements for office staff

●      Monitor incoming and outgoing mail; receive and sign for mail/packages from couriers and deliver to proper recipient

●      Prepare correspondence, documentation, and presentation materials

●      Take notes at meetings and prepare minutes

●      Coordinate volunteers to help with administrative tasks as needed

●      If the candidate is skilled in design/layout, the job responsibilities can be expanded to include design and production of outreach materials


●      High school diploma; associate’s or bachelor’s degree in business, administration, or related field experience

●      Significant experience in office administration/management, executive assistant experience preferred but not required

●      Proficient computer skills, including Microsoft Office Suite (Word, PowerPoint, and Excel), Google Drive and Google Docs, and a CRM software; scheduling appointments/updating online calendars a must; website maintenance a plus.

●      Highly organized multi-tasker who works well in a fast-paced environment

●      Willingness to learn and to grow with the nonprofit

●      Excellent written and verbal communication skills

●      Absolute accuracy and attention to details

●      Complete confidentiality and discretion, sound judgement

●      Demonstrated strategic thinking and initiative; self-starter and self-directed

●      Believes in the land conservation mission of Hawaiian Islands Land Trust

●      Familiarity with Hawaiian language and Hawaii’s history and land use is an added strength

●      Design and layout skills are an added strength

Qualified applicants are asked to submit their cover letter and resume by email no later than June 15.

Ka Moolelo o Waihee: Ke kumu o ka aina

The Story of Waihe’e: The source of the land

Walking along the coast of the Waihee Refuge today, listening to the sounds of the wind that the kupuna called Ka makani kili oopu, a 1.6 million year old story unfolds beneath your feet.  In some ways this story is the story of the entire Hawaiian archipelago, but there are some twists to this story that combine to make Waihee unique.  While humans have only walked this land for just over a thousand years, the geological forces that shaped Waihee are written in broad strokes across the entire landscape. 

The mountain that rises up from the refuge, variously known as Mauna Kahalawai, Puu Kukui, and sometimes simply the West Maui Mountains, is a geologically young 1.6 million years old.  Haleakala, visible across Kahului Bay, by comparison is a geological infant at a mere 1.2 million years old.  It is important to note, however, that the ages used to date these volcanoes, which geologists simply call shield volcanoes, are dated to the time when they reached their peak in height.  In reality, Mauna Kahalawai and Haleakala stopped growing 1.6 million years and 1.2 million years ago respectively.  Both mountains were undoubtedly substantially higher at their peak, but millennia of erosion has reduced their height, and on Mauna Kahalawai in particular, there are deeply incised large valleys where streams flow to the ocean today.  At the edge of the Refuge, the Waihee Stream flows into the ocean at a rate of about 15 million gallons each day. 

What gives the Waihee Refuge one of its most unique characteristics are the sand dunes that surround it, creating a hollow of sorts, a feature that contributed to the Hawaiian name for this area, Kapoho, or the hollow.  If Mauna Kahalawai is defined today by the erosion that shaped its many valleys, Kapoho is defined by these sand dunes.  These dunes, which geologists refer to as Aeolian, or wind-blown dunes, are the result of the power of the ice ages.  Typically, most of us do not think of ice ages as shaping these islands which lie in the northern tropics.  However, Waihee is a testament to the power of these frigid epochs to shape and transform landscapes even thousands of miles distant from the glaciers that shaped North America. 

Two ice ages are notable in the geological formation of Maui, Mauna Kahalawai, and Waihee.  The first occurred when Haleakala had recently completed its shield building phase and probably rose to an elevation between 12 and 14 thousand feet occurred approximately 1.2 million years ago. This glacial period occurred during the middle of the last geological time period, the Pleistocene, and was particularly severe.  With vast volumes of water captured in the northern hemispheres ice caps, sea levels around all of Hawaii dropped hundreds of feet; so much in fact, that the islands of Maui, Molokai, Lana’i and Kahoolawe became one massive island.  So large, that this massive island, known colloquially as Maui Nui (or great Maui), was approximately 20% larger than Hawaii Island is today.  The massive size of Maui Nui accounts for Maui’s incredible biodiversity, as large islands, unsurprisingly, capture the largest number of species flying (or floating) over the vast Pacific Ocean.  Little remains to be seen of this powerful ice age in Waihee today, but the signature of the next glacial period, quite literally surrounds the Waihee Refuge.

After a long period of a relatively warm global climate, approximately 21,000 years ago the earth, and the northern hemisphere in particular, went through another intense period of glaciation.  Known as the late Pleistocene ice age, and more specifically, the Wisconsin period of glaciation. Sea levels around Hawaii dropped approximately 300-400 feet.  Kahoolawe remained independent of Maui Nui island during this period, suggesting a less intense ice age than the previous glacial period.  However, because the fringing reef system in front of the Waihee Refuge had built up for well over a million years, its exposure and disintegration over the next 10,000 or so years created the sand that built up and formed the dunes that would, many millennia later, come to be called Mauna Ihi. 

Remnants of these dunes once extended from Kalaekahoomano, the point directly above the Waihee stream, through Wailuku around Kahului nearly to Waikapu. The dunes that once covered much of Maui’s central valley remained a prominent feature of the landscape, a testament of the power of ice ages to impact landscapes thousands of miles to the south.  While anthropogenic modifications have dramatically changed the landscape, in her travel journal English explorer and travel writer Isabella Bird described her travels between Wailuku and Haiku in 1873 as a trip through a “mini Sahara Desert.” Today, the 200 foot dunes of the Waihee Refuge are the last unmodified reminder of earths last glacial maximum.

Another striking reminder of the power of natural phenomenon to shape and carve the landscape comes when standing at Kalaekahoomano above Waihee stream, looking north west along the Kahakuloa coast.  The cliffs along this rugged coast are a reminder of the fragility of Hawaiian shield volcanoes.  For many decades, geologists have known that Hawaiian shield volcanoes are prone to what is sometimes described as ‘flank failure.’  Simply put, massive chunks of the volcanoes that make up Hawaiian volcanoes will shear off into the ocean.  The 300-400 foot cliffs along the Kahakuloa coast seem to be evidence of flank failure.  With the collapse of a portion of the mountain, the tsunami this event generated would have been catastrophic for any living (flightless) creature in Waihee.  Although no estimate of the volume of this catastrophic event has been calculated, by comparison, the massive flank failure on the island of Molokai approximately 1.5 million years ago, generated a wave estimated at a height of over 1,900 feet.  While the Kahakuloa flank collapse would have been substantially smaller than that, the numerous water worn rocks that line the coast of approximately half of the Waihee Refuge are a reminder of the intensity of these catastrophic events. 

Finally, as Mauna Kahalawai aged and eroded, the power of water became more prominent across the landscape.  While most of that water seeped into the basin that makes up the Waihee stream, a smaller, but substantial portion of that water flows underground, and emerges in springs along the coast.  While one large spring was located at the base of the sand dunes, numerous smaller springs are located within Kapoho, surrounded by the dunes, and these springs collectively make up the 27 acres of wetlands in the heart of the Waihee Refuge. 

Volcanoes, sea levels ebbing and flowing, flank collapses and the slow power of water each in their own way have come to create and shape this land that we have loved and cared for over the past decade and a half — an insignificant point in the great tapestry of time.  Understanding these geological processes is a reminder of our connection to the land, and how truly small we are within the vast scope of the history of the land. He alii ka aina, he kauwa ke kanaka (the land is the chief, and people are its servants), never rings more true than when we understand our place on the landscape.

— Dr. Scot Fisher