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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 14, 2002

Value of koa hardwood growing on black market

 •  Learn more about koa

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Staff Writer

HILO, Hawai'i — It's the premier timber tree of Hawai'i, a native species linked to the power of the ali'i, the carving of traditional Hawaiian canoes and the crafting of the finest 'ukulele. It's quite simply a magical name in the state's woodworking industry.

John Holley, a conservation enforcement officer, stands near logs that were illegally cut from a koa stump in the Hilo Forest Reserve. The thieves were caught.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

Koa grows nowhere else but Hawai'i, and while it is not considered an endangered species, harvesting is scarce and its value has never been greater. A mature tree can turn out tens of thousands of dollars worth of finished koa products.

"It's practically worth its weight in gold," said Andrea Gill, executive director of the Hawai'i Forest Industry Association.

But the prized hardwood and its rising value have spawned a growing black market. While no one knows the scope of the illegal activity, foresters and state conservation enforcement officials say they're spending an increasing amount of the time dealing with the problem of koa thefts.

A koa tree theft ring was busted on Kaua'i last year, and a Big Island grand jury filed indictments in a separate case this year. There have been reports of other recent thefts, including some on O'ahu. State conservation enforcement officers say they're now investigating an even larger case on the Big Island.

"What we're seeing is just the tip of the iceberg,'' said John Holley, Big Island state conservation enforcement officer.

Some say the problem is likely to continue because few eyes are watching over Hawai'i's vast koa forests. On the Big Island, where most of the state's koa grows, there are about 20 officers responsible for about 1 million acres of state Department of Land and Natural Resources land, along with the ocean extending 12 miles from the shore.

In the Ka'u District, a single officer oversees an area the size of O'ahu.

The state Division of Conservation and Enforcement has increased its patrol of prime koa stands and lobbied for legislation that would make it illegal to transport forest products without records detailing where they were obtained.

But it remains a daunting task to protect the koa forests.

"We can't be everywhere," said Lenny Terlep Sr., the division's Hilo branch chief. "We're being used for security at the ports, as escorts in the courts ... We rely heavily on tips and good, solid information.''

One reason for the rising value of koa is the fact that its natural range has diminished during the years because of logging and land clearing for agricultural production and cattle grazing. Thousands of acres that were originally forested are now dry hills covered by thorny shrubs and grass.

The resource continues to decline today under pressure from grazing, an influx of alien plant species and harvesting.

"It's getting mined like it's a mineral,'' state forester Michael Constantinides said.

Demand for koa far exceeds the supply, which generally is available only on private land, mostly from pastures that contain the remnants of koa forests. Harvesting on state lands is generally limited to a few areas where permitees are allowed to take only trees that have fallen down on their own.

With a shrinking supply, prices have shot up seven to 10 times in the past 20 years.

"Koa is like a god,'' said Mel Pau'ole, a professional woodworker from Kailua, Kona. "It plays such a big role in the culture. So many people here look upon it as a really special wood.''

In furniture, jewelry, picture frames and paneling, koa says "Hawai'i.''

"It's our heritage wood, part of our identity,'' Gill said. "And it's a great, beautiful wood.''

Recognized worldwide

John Holley, a conservation enforcement officer, measures marks on a koa stump that was illegally cut down. The stump has burn marks from an electric saw.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

Indeed, koa is recognized around the world for its textural pattern, from plain to curly, and its color, from reds to deep chocolate-browns and blond. While the grain is fine and the texture medium-coarse, it is the pattern of the wood that puts koa in a class of its own. A good finish can give it a stunning three-dimensional quality.

Although the Hawai'i Forest Industry Association has been actively pushing other native woods in a bid to establish new markets and take the pressure off koa, the effort has been slow-going. Koa still represents 90 percent of Hawai'i's $30 million timber industry.

Gill said koa has developed its own unshakable mystique during the years. She recalls seeing some hair brushes made from different woods, including koa and mango, during a recent visit to Ala Moana Center. The sales clerk insisted they were all koa.

"If you had eight different samples, a lot of people couldn't even pick (koa) out of a lineup," Gill said. "Even though other woods can be just as beautiful and the quality of workmanship just as good, koa is the wood of choice. It really is top-of-mind.

"It's very successful marketing, and not on purpose; it just happened.''

Today, premium curly koa costs as much as $45 a board foot, with regular koa priced as high as $25 a a board foot. A newly made koa jewelry box can cost upward of $500, a small dining set in excess of $6,000.

Koa has gotten so expensive that one of Hawai'i's biggest koa manufacturers, Martin & MacArthur, is buying about half as much koa as it did seven years ago.

W. Lloyd Jones, the company's CEO, explained that while 90 percent of its furniture and 75 percent of its gift items are still made of koa, most of the picture frames are now made with only a koa veneer.

"People are starting to respect the other woods, but koa is still king,'' Jones said.

Forest stakeouts

On the Big Island, a downed power line last May 8 eventually led to the arrest of two men suspected of poaching koa trees from state land. Hawai'i Electric Light Co. crews responded to the problem in the Hilo Forest Reserve and were the first to see the koa stumps. They called authorities.

Holley, a former Big Island policeman who enjoys wood carving himself, led an investigation that included two weeks of stakeouts in the forest. Holley hid in a bush in the rain waiting for the poachers to return for more trees or to claim logs already chopped down and waiting to be hauled out.

The stakeouts proved fruitless and frustrating.

In the end, a tip led to the arrest of the men, who were stopped

May 27 by police with a pickup load of logs. They were charged with first-degree theft for stealing $104,000 worth of koa trees — 31 from the Hilo Forest Reserve and several more from a couple of other locations. The men face 10 years in prison in a trial scheduled next month.

Key to the investigation were state foresters who were able to match the stumps of cut koa to some of the logs in the suspects' possession. Some of the trees were close to 100 years old.

On Kaua'i, conservation enforcement officers caught two men in the act of cutting koa trees April 1, 2001, on state land at Koke'e. They later arrested three others and confiscated more than 50 logs from homes where they were being stored. Following grand jury indictments, the five men, ranging in age from 19 to 41, also are to go on trial next month.

Holley said he's seeing a trend in which koa is being cut for quick sale to support drug habits. And while many woodworkers and mill operators are honest, hard-working people, he said, some will go for the relatively cheap, black market deals.

Big Island conservation enforcement officers say they are conducting an investigation into an even larger koa theft case, but they won't discuss details. However, Terlep last October acknowledged an investigation into alleged illegal logging on conservation-zoned land under lease to the Damon Estate's Kahuku Ranch.

Environment damaged

Koa trees in the Hilo Forest Reserve as young as this one have been illegally logged.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

In addition to stealing a public resource, the thieves are damaging the environment by forging new roads, cutting native plants, eliminating bird habitat and allowing openings in the forest for alien species, foresters said.

Some in the forest industry believe the state's policy of not permitting koa harvesting in state forests has as much as anything to do with the declining habitat, the high price of koa and the growing illegal activity.

"Some say that when you outlaw access to the wood, only the outlaws have the wood,'' said Stephen Smith, a Kaua'i forestry consultant who is president of the Hawai'i Forest Industry Association.

Smith said selective harvesting should be allowed not only to better manage the koa forests but to place more eyes in the wilderness to watch out for illegal activity.

"Right now it can be the wild west out there, with outlaws in the bushes, with their chainsaws and their piles of wood,'' he said.

"The arch enemy of the forests is the state government,'' insisted Bill Eger, former Hawai'i Forest Industry Association board member who is running as a Democrat for the 4th House seat that represents Puna.

Eger and others in the industry contend the state has failed to properly take care of its lands — both in its agricultural leases and forest reserves — allowing old koa trees to die and inviting invasive species to move in. They believe the state is bowing to those who insist that no harvesting take place whatsoever.

In the early 1990s, state officials proposed a 1,200-acre koa management area on former leased pasture land at Kapapala on the Big Island. The plan, according to state forestry program manager Carl Masaki, was to demonstrate to ranchers that their pastures could be worked for koa harvesting. But the proposal died after environmental groups objected.

"We have such a broad mandate. It's hard to please everybody,'' Masaki said.

The Sierra Club Hawai'i Chapter has adamantly opposed koa logging on state lands, saying the forests represent a last haven for many rare, threatened or endangered species of endemic birds, insects and plants.

In a formal position statement, the organization calls for a moratorium on the purchase of koa products until such a time as they can come from an "environmentally sound koa forest industry.''

"In an ideal world, there would be no logging of koa,'' said former Hawai'i Chapter Chairman David Kimo Frankel. "In an ideal world, (koa) logging could be done in a sustainable way. But we're a long, long way from that.''

Brighter tomorrow

Despite worries about the koa wood supply, there is optimism within the industry for a brighter tomorrow:

• The state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands is poised to launch a koa salvage and reforestation project on about 125 acres at Humu'ula on the Big Island. The department plans to use the revenue from the logs for alien species control and land management.

• Kamehameha Schools, which owns 294,000 acres on the Big Island, is conducting a biological assessment and timber inventory in an effort to determine if it can begin selective harvesting.

• The Nature Conservancy has hired a scientist to conduct research in hopes of developing a koa forestry model on land recently purchased in Kona. The agency aims to demonstrate to landowners how to maintain both the biological and economic value of their lands.

• The Hawai'i Agriculture Research Center is looking into koa genetics to develop seed for improved varieties.

• Big Island ranches, such as McCandless and Parker, are turning some grazing lands into koa forests, hoping to find a new revenue source. Some companies, such as Maui Land & Pineapple Co., are also experimenting with koa.

There are now an estimated 20,000 acres of koa being grown commercially. But the supply of wood will continue to be sporadic for at least 15 to 20 years, when some of the new plantations will be ready for harvest.

Until then, it's likely John Holley and his small band of state conservation enforcement colleagues will be forced to deal with the koa black market as best they can.

"Wherever there's a commodity and it's not being watched, people are going to take,'' Holley said. "People are going to take until they are caught."

Reach Timothy Hurley at thurley@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 244-4880.