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December 18, 2012

Making History in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park: Rehabilitating Kahuku

National Park Service Ranger Interns Julia Espaniola (left) and Radhika Dockstander (right). Photo by Karyn Boenker

Story by Karyn Boenker contributor

Throughout Kahuku park on the big island of Hawai’i, overgrown gates, grasslands, and fields are reminders of ranching practices that once ruled the land. Today, Kahuku belongs to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park and is in the process of active restoration and public use. contributor Karyn Boenker spoke with park rangers about the history of ranching, ancient forests, and the lives that led them to Kahuku.

Kahuku park is a special place, “We’ve got the foundation for this forest to come back, it’s just been waiting,” U.S. National Park Service Ranger Rita Pregana told


Ohi’a Trees.
Photo: Karyn Boenker

She pointed to the Ohi’a trees (pictured right) as an example of the forest’s resilience, noting that visitors should be keen to notice the life that gathers in their shade and around their soil. Even among the lava fields.

Pregana reflected on her work as a ranger, “Once you develop that relationship to your place on what, some would consider, a real primal level… you’ll see things that are simple, but that you can’t place an order for, money can’t buy.”

The ultimate goal of the US National Parks is to protect resources through a balance of preservation and public use. Protecting the open space is important, but leaving some of it for visitors provides an experience with nature in its most raw form.

Smart Ranching Practices Made Kahuku Park Possible

“If not for the ranch, we wouldn’t have such a large piece of land left in Hawai’i,” Pregana told

In Kahuku's ranching days, mature native trees were left behind to attract fog and keep the grass healthy for cattle. Photo by Karyn Boenker

In Kahuku’s ranching days, mature native trees were left behind to attract fog and keep the grass healthy for cattle. Wind turbines are visible from the Glover Trail system, which is the southern most point in the United States.
Photo: Karyn Boenker

Most ranching spaces in Hawai’i have cleared trees completely from the land and are used for ranching indefinitely or will become defunct. The land management choices made in Kahuku were unique, sparing some native and mature trees that now provide seeds for the forest to recover.

According to the land manager at the time, Harold Fredrick Rice, Jr., the goal of preserving healthy native trees was not conservation related, it was practical. More trees meant more fog, which led to healthier grass and more food for fewer cows.

In 2000, during an interview with the Hawai’i Cattlemen’s Council, Rice commented that many ranchers see cattle as their product, when they should really be focused on the grass. He claimed that such a focus enhanced the environment while increasing profits.

“Less cattle, less men, less equipment, everything else for the same pounds of beef,” Rice summarized for the Hawai’i Cattlemen’s Council.

The choice was a unique one for the time, during the 60s and 70s when popular forestry methods supported clearcutting pastures. Throughout the Hawaiian islands, around 50% of land use has been for cattle pastures, so related decisions have had a major impact. Kahuku park rangers reflected on some of the changes they have witnessed in the land.

Trails were placed on top of old roads in order to minimize impact. Photo by Karyn Boenker

Trails were placed on top of old ranching roads in order to minimize impact.
Photo:  Karyn Boenker

Witnessing Environmental Change

Two intern Park Rangers at Kahuku told that the land connects them to an ancient past, while guiding them into their future.

Julia Espaniola is a high school student who was inspired by her brother to join the National Park Service. She attributes his decision to get involved with the parks, while also in high school, as a turning point in his life. Today, he works for The Nature Conservancy, a widely respected organization that concentrates on resource conservation, protection, and rehabilitation.

Working with the Park Service is “not just a job, it’s something that helps us see who we are and what we really want in life,” Espaniola told

Radhika Dockstader is a psychology student at the University of Hawai’i who grew up on the edge of Kahuku. As a child she explored Kahuku’s forested pit crater, available for public viewing today, without really understanding it (photo below). The education she has received as a park employee has revealed a new way of seeing the space.

A beautiful forest pit crater can be viewed from the Glover Trail system in upper Kahuku. Photo by Karyn Boenker

A beautiful forest pit crater can be viewed from the Glover Trail system in upper Kahuku.
Photo: Karyn Boenker

“I can go back through and imagine this huge tree canopy and what it would have been like. It’s incredible,” Dockstader explained.

Both interns expressed sentiment that the park has helped them become adults. Like Espaniola’s brother, they began their work with the Park Service in high school. Since then, they have taken part in extensive training, scientific education, and outdoor experience with hiking and camping.

The responsibility for park visitors has given them to opportunity to share the beauty and lessons of their home with the world. Both made special note to describe their zeal for helping people, especially when they get to connect with children and other locals.

“We are restoring and preserving what is left. If we don’t take care of what we have, it’s going to be gone,” Dockstader lamented.

History Matters

Over and over, the rangers directed my view to the lava fields and the Ohi’a trees bursting to life within them. Both Dockstader and Espaniola described their understanding of land change and so-called destruction as beautiful. They repeated their gratitude for the unique ranching choices that allowed Kahuku to begin a journey towards rebirth under the management of the National Park Service.

“If you do it right, nature will display itself in front of you,” Pregana concluded about her experiences with land preservation and the way she has come to love her work.

This story was meant to be about ranching and human impacts on forests, with Kahuku as an example of good choices changing history. During interviews with rangers a different story emerged; one where the forest had changed the people who had connected with it.

In 2003, the land of Kahuku was sold for the last time and will be preserved forever.

The Kahuku extension of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is currently open on Saturdays and Sundays from 9am-3pm. The park is located on Highway 11 near mile marker 70.5 in Ka’u. More information can be found here.

Photo: (Feature Image) National Park Service Ranger Interns Julia Espaniola (left) and Radhika Dockstander (right). Photo: Karyn Boenker

About the Author

Karyn Boenker
Karyn Boenker, MS, is a freelance journalist and environmental scientist. She writes human interest stories while traveling the world and enjoys communicating scientific topics with a touch of humor.