ʻApapane is a species of Hawaiian honeycreeper, that is endemic to Hawaii. Credit: Caleb Slemmons via Flickr.

Lush tropical forests, brightly colored birds and pristine beaches: here in our D.C.-based office, these are all images that certainly evoke envy on a cold, misty December day. They also represent the next site of our 25-year Global ReLeaf journey: Hawaii, the incredibly biodiverse archipelago that comprises our 50th state.

But, with how naturally beautiful Hawaii is, why is there a need to plant more trees?

By essentially being formed as an incredibly isolated entity — an archipelago surrounded by ocean, and created by volcanic hot spots — Hawaii became one of the most uniquely biodiverse regions on the planet, with thousands of unique plant and animal species calling the islands home. In addition, the majority of these species — up to 90 percent — are only found in Hawaii.

Unfortunately, rampant land clearing, agriculture, urbanization and invasive threats have cleared up to 2/3 of the original dry and wet forests and have given Hawaii another nickname — the “extinction capital of the world.”  In fact, nearly 75 percent of all extinctions in the country have occurred in Hawaii, and the islands are still in trouble. While the islands comprise a mere 0.2 percent of the land mass within the entire U.S., they contain more than 30 percent of the nation’s federally listed endangered species due to habitat loss and competition from invasive insects, weeds, diseases, farm animals and more.  Colorful and exotic characters, including the Hawaiian crow, the Hawaiian monk seal, crested honeycreepers and O’ahu tree snails, all continue to suffer from habitat loss and degradation.

Fortunately, there are ways to combat this rampant loss. Biocontrol measures have successfully targeted invasive species removal. Ecotourism on the islands has brought attention and education to many about the importance of conserving this vital resource.  And, of course, forest restoration can be a crucial puzzle piece.

Way back in 1992, we ventured into completing our first landmark project in the islands by planting 32,300 native Acacia koa hardwood trees to provide habitat for several species of native Hawaiian birds, from the crimson ‘Apapane to the pudgy yellow ‘Akiapōlā‘au. This initiative, which marked the first of five years there, worked to restore habitat for these and other native species in Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge. Furthermore, they worked to combat another threat to Hawaii’s many native species: Koa helps create an overstory, which can allow native plants to recapture the site from non-native vegetative competition.

In addition, for those keeping up with American Forests trivia, we actually planted our 1 millionth tree within this project (have you heard about our 50 millionth?)!  As such, this project marked the beginning of a fantastic initiative showing that more work still did — and continues to — need to be done, and we will make sure to continue to do it!