Hawaii Land Management for Ecosystem Services: Lessons from the Past Re-Envisioned for the Climate Changed Future

Hawaii Land Management for Ecosystem Services: Lessons from the Past Re-Envisioned for the Climate Changed Future

Note: Below is a twitter thread I wrote in Fall 2021, articulating the history and future vision for hazard aware multi-functional land use planning.

In the blinding light of recent fires, Hawaii’s late modern history of innovation/failures in response and comprehensive planning for ecosystem (service) management is worth a look.


From the late 1800s until the start of WWII, as agricultural water concerns turned into community water crises, a bold vision of forest ecosystem management took hold in the Hawaii’s landscapes, enabled by public-private labor coordination and adoption of new technology.

In late 1800s, the importance of Hawaii forests in providing water for urban consumption and irrigation of sugar cane is recognized by government and agricultural sectors. Uncoordinated fencing, cattle removal, and tree plantings happen in response.


Hawai’i forest reserves were established in the early 1900s in response to concerns over freshwater supplies and the degraded condition of the native forests protecting the watersheds.


Harold Lyon envisioned planting ‘barrier forests’ to separate agriculture from remaining native forests and perform ecosystem services that native forest no longer could.

However, Forest Reserve tree planting work by the Territory was limited over the next decades, totaling only about 1,200 acres by 1926.


Then, in 1926 water crises concerns popped up across the islands

In 1927, tree planting work significantly expanded, and by 1939 over 12 million trees were planted across nearly 27,000 acres.


The Depression era saw coordinated efforts of the Territorial Division of Forestry and Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association (Lyon), utilizing off-season agricultural labor and eventually the Civilian Corps

Honolulu was apparently the first site of aerial tree seeding for forestry

Lyon and HSPA experimented diligently yet, in concluding that native species were of limited utility, ultimately are responsible for the introduction and proliferation of numerous invasive tree species that frustrate current conservation and restoration efforts.

Today, as chronic concerns over climate change are becoming ever more acute and frequent disruptions, we need to again court ideas at the scale of our problems.

Coordinated multifunctional agricultural landscape planning is one such vision.

The islands have, are, and will change, yet the last century of agricultural land classification efforts still underpin Hawaii’s state and county land use zoning and rules.

Efforts like LSB (1965-’68), ALISH (’77), LESA (’86), and IAL (ongoing?) are all in some way weighted based on water access from infrastructure that, once privately funded, is now languishing or gone.


An agricultural land assessment for the 21st century is needed to articulate the multiple visions of local farming, outline the manifold services ag can provide and define key areas for agricultural protection and development.

Environmental factors like soil and climate should be paired with modeled outputs from climate crop suitability, fire patterns (@claytrau), critical hydrological function areas (@akkagawa), etc.

Farm fields, native forest barriers, riparian buffers, and firebreaks, can then be weighed along with socio-economic goals of livelihood and lifestyle producers alike, not to mention the druthers of us food eaters.

Part of the problem with last century’s agricultural assessments has been their static and abstracted approach. They seem to ask ‘What could be done?’ but left out ‘How would it get done?’. Planning and economic development however are best when wedded.

To paraphrase Cornelius ‘Corny’ Downes’ 1986 take (+ my takes):

Planning without economic development is just powerless ivory-tower ideation (or worse: wasted community energy);

Economic development without planning will run amok (see tourism).


To guide us through the world warping tumults of this century, we need to stop yarning just about what land can grow, and starting threading together what and who land is for.