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Maui is a Natural Treasure

Even before you arrive on Maui, while the island is still just a breathtaking view from your window seat, you can see that this is a place of incredible natural beauty. But it's after you land and begin to explore, that Maui reveals her astonishing diversity. The island is a microcosm of the world's climates and terrains. In an hour or two, you can travel from the stark beauty of a lava flow to the luxuriant green of a rain forest . . . from balmy beaches swept by sea foam to the alpine tundra of a dormant volcano.

Time and distance have set Maui apart. The Hawaiian Islands are the most remote places on earth; from here, the nearest continent is 2,500 miles away. And Maui is young. Humans roamed the rest of the world for a million years before the massive volcano known as Haleakala emerged from the ocean depths to form the eastern portion of the island. Most of another million years would pass before humans set foot here, 1,500 years ago.

What those first Hawaiians found was an untouched world.

Life had arrived on Maui by wind, wing and water, but mostly by chance-a new plant or animal perhaps every 10,000 years. On this island, with its wealth of ecological niches waiting to be filled, life exploded into new forms and varieties that had never existed before, nor anywhere else on earth. Amid Maui's evolutionary wonders are a seabird that burrows underground to build its nest . . . tree snails with shells as decorative as Christmas ornaments . . . and a plant, distant cousin to the sunflower, that thrives as a silvery sphere in the moonscape of Haleakala Crater, eventually sending a stalk of flowers towering as much as eight feet into the air.

For all its tenacity, life here is fragile. Evolving in isolation, native plants and animals lost their natural defenses. The introduction of alien species has threatened the survival of endemic ones; one out of every five endangered plant species in the United States, and one out of every two endangered species of birds, is Hawaiian.

But Maui is lucky. Less than 25 percent of the island's 729 square miles is inhabited, and because much of the terrain is rugged and remote, it remains pristine.

Still, Mauians aren't trusting to luck. Unique partnerships by conservation groups, major landowners and corporations, and federal, state and county governments are helping to ensure that tomorrow's generations will enjoy the abundant blessings of today.

The most ambitious of these projects is the East Maui Watershed Partnership, a pioneer endeavor by federal, state and county governments, the Nature Conservancy, Hana Ranch, Haleakala Ranch, and Alexander & Baldwin, Inc. The partnership oversees 100,000 wilderness acres from Kaupo, on the island's eastern tip, to Makawao, Maui's cowboy country; from the 10,023-foot summit of Haleakala National Park, to the Keanae coast. Through conservation easement, resource management and the removal of destructive alien species, the East Maui Watershed Partnership protects one of the largest remaining tracts of native forest in all of Hawai'i-and protects, as well, the highest concentration of rare and endangered birds in the world.

Similar partnerships by the Nature Conservancy, the State of Hawai'i, Maui Land & Pineapple Company, and Amfac/JMB Hawai'i are protecting vital watersheds in the West Maui Mountains-and with them, flora and fauna that don't even exist on other parts of Maui, including a rare Hawaiian violet that grows in the summit bogs of Pu'u Kukui, tallest peak in the West Maui Mountains; and native 'ohi'a trees only a few inches high, whose lehua blossoms grow as large as those of 50-foot 'ohi'a trees found elsewhere in Hawai'i.

Ultimately, these partnerships protect the island's very life. Surrounded by thousands of miles of ocean, Maui depends on rain for almost all of its fresh water. What catches the rain, absorbing it like a sponge and allowing it to seep gently into underground streams and aquifers, is the rain forest. Without the trees, mosses, ferns and other undergrowth, rains would race down the mountainsides, washing fertile soil into the ocean, smothering the reef and endangering other estuary life.

The Native Hawaiians understood this inextricable link between mountain and sea. Ancient land divisions, or ahupua'a, ran from summit to shore, ensuring each village access to fishing grounds, agricultural lands and forests. Maui's contemporary conservation efforts are likewise working to preserve both land and sea.

On West Maui, Kapalua Resort has joined forces with the New York Audubon Society to institute conservation practices that have turned its 54 championship fairways into sanctuaries for island birds. The three Kapalua courses are among only 43 in the U.S. that meet the Audubon Society's stringent certification standards for use of water, fertilizer and pesticides; and the reintroduction of native flora to preserve natural habitat.

Nearly two decades ago, Maui Land & Pineapple Company launched efforts to have two of the six crescent bays along the coast of its Kapalua Resort declared marine preserves. Today Honolua and Mokuleia Bays have been designated marine-life conservation districts by the State of Hawai'i. Snorkelers, swimmers and divers share the bay and its lava and coral formations with Hawaiian reef fish, manta rays and green sea turtles.

In the waters off Wailea Resort, on Maui's southern coast, lies the marine preserve of Molokini, the exposed rim of a submerged, extinct volcano. Molokini's clear, protected waters attract colorful and curious pelagic fish-and the equally curious divers and snorkelers who sail out to meet them each day. In 1992, Congress established the waters surrounding the islands of Maui County as a marine sanctuary-an act that is helping Maui's biggest endangered species pull back from the brink of extinction.

Humpback whales migrate each year between Hawaiian waters and the Arctic Circle. The Arctic provides a rich feeding ground, but it's here in Hawai'i that the whales mate and bear their young. In 1900, an estimated 15,000 humpback whales existed in the North Pacific. By 1968, when a ban was finally placed on hunting them, only about 1,000 humpbacks remained. Thanks to efforts by such organizations as the Pacific Whale Foundation, Whales Alive, and the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary-all located in Kihei, Maui-humpbacks are making a slow but determined comeback. Scientists believe that about 4,000 to 5,000 humpback whales come to Maui each year.

From November until as late as the end of May, Maui's waters teem with these majestic giants. Indeed, Maui is one of the few places in the world where you can watch the whales from shore. To protect them, thrillcraft such as jetskis and parasails are prohibited during whale season. All ocean vessels are required to stay at least 100 yards away from the whales, but as visitors aboard whale-watching cruises will happily tell you, no restrictions keep the whales from coming up to investigate the boats. Between the deep blue sea and the heavens above Haleakala, Maui offers visitors a host of opportunities to explore nature-both for learning and for play.

The Hawai'i Nature Center, located in `Iao Valley, conducts educational hikes and hands-on activities that teach young and old about the valley's flora and fauna. This year, the Nature Center and the Kapalua Nature Society have begun a number of entertaining environmental programs, from "Star Gazing on the Green" of Kapalua's Plantation Golf Course, to "Nature From Tree Toes to Tree Tops." Maui's Natural Treasures, page 4

Increasingly, Maui's resorts have been going "back to nature"-planting endangered Hawaiian flora, restoring historic sites, creating nature trails, providing educational signage and literature, and hiring staff historians and wildlife experts to enlighten visitors and residents alike. Even a round of golf can be a trek back to an earlier Hawai'i. At Wailea Resort, the Gold Course is landscaped with indigenous foliage such as natal redtop grass and wiliwili trees, and bordered by rugged lava rock formations and old Hawaiian stone walls.

For a true wilderness experience, the Park Service and the Nature Conservancy both lead guided hikes into Waikamoi, a private preserve that is part of the East Maui Watershed Partnership. The hikes begin at Hosmer Grove, near the entrance to Haleakala National Park, and offer the public the rare chance to experience a native Hawaiian rain forest, where indigenous birds like the 'akohekohe, 'apapane and 'i'iwi flit amid 'ohi'a and acacia koa trees.

Throughout the island, hiking opportunities abound; choose the climate and terrain you prefer. You can trek across Maui's most recent lava flow, along the coast at La P‚rouse; or climb Haleakala Volcano and descend for a hike into the crater's backcountry. At Keanae Arboretum, on the way to Hana, a loop trail leads from taro fields into pure jungle. The newly restored Lahaina Pali Trail affords a rugged but scenic hike along sea cliffs, with spectacular views of Maui and her sister islands. The trail follows a road that historians believe was part of the Alaloa, the "long road" that Kiha-a-pi'ilani, a 16th-century chief, ordered built to encircle the island. A variety of hiking maps and guide books is available, and you can also sign on with an excursion company for a guided hike, complete with lunch.

For nearly half a decade, the Mayor's Bicycle Advisory Committee has worked to create a network of bike paths throughout the island. One bikeway follows Maui's meandering leeward coast from Wailea Resort to Kapalua-a distance of 40 miles each way. The North Shore Greenway currently under development will soon enable cyclists to travel a safe and scenic ocean path all the way from the business district of Kahului to the plantation town of Pa`ia. For off-road cycling, there's a bicycle trail at Polipoli Springs State Recreation Area, not far from Haleakala's summit. And every day, hundreds of people of all ages coast down from the summit of Haleakala Volcano. Excursion companies will take you to the crater by van-if you like, a view of sunrise-and provide bicycle, helmets, all-weather gear and an informative guide.

Maui's horseback-riding stables are located from sea level to 4,000 feet up the slopes of Haleakala. Equestrians can enjoy a variety of rides, including treks into the volcano's caldera.

Campers may pitch their tents at several beach parks, among them the state park at Wai`anapanapa, near Hana, where the beach is black sand. Another state park with camping facilities is at Polipoli Springs, in a high, redwood forest preserve. Haleakala National Park has campsites both inside the crater and along the coast at Kipahulu; three cabins in the crater are available on a lottery basis.

Humans are part of the ecosystem, too. More than a millennium before the arrival of Europeans in these islands, Hawaiians built a thriving and complex civilization here, adapting nature, but religiously respectful of it. Archeological sites have been discovered all over Maui, some easily identified and accessible to the public, others preserved in private, both for posterity and for cultural use by Maui's indigenous people. Several of these archeological sites are listed with photos and maps in the pamphlet "Experience Historic Maui," published by Maui County and available at the island's public libraries. They include Haleki'i and Pihanakalani Heiau (stone platforms that served as temples), located in the town of Wailuku. Kamehameha the Great, the Hawaiian king who united the islands, is said to have performed the last human sacrifice on Maui at Pihanakalani. Also listed are Pi'ilanihale Heiau in Hana, Hawai'i's largest heiau, dating from the 14th century; and an archaeological district along the shoreline trail at La P'rouse, where a thriving collection of Hawaiian villages existed prior to Haleakala's last lava flow in 1790.


Contact for bikeway information:
-David DeLeon, Maui County, 200 S. High Street, Wailuku, HI 96793; 808-243-7855
-Department of Land & Natural Resources, P.O. Box 1049, Wailuku, HI 96793; 808-984-8100

Contact for information on state park camping:
-Deparment of Land & Natural Resources, Division of Forestry & Wildlife 54 S. High St., Wailuku, HI 96793; 808-984-8109

Information on hiking:
-Haleakala National Park, P.O. Box 369, Makawao, HI 96768; 808-572-4400
-The Hawaii Nature Center, 875 Iao Valley Road, Wailuku, HI 96793; 808-244-6500
-Ken Schmitt, Hike Maui, P.O. Box 10506, Lahaina, HI 96761; 808-879-5270
-Kapalua Nature Society, 500 Bay Drive, Kapalua, HI 96761; 808-669-0244
-The Nature Conservancy, 81 Makawao Ave., Suite 203A, Makawao, HI 96768; 808-572-7849

For information about whales:
-Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, 726 S. Kihei Rd., Kihei, HI 96753; 808-879-2818
-Pacific Whale Foundation, 101 N. Kihei Rd., Suite 25, Kihei, HI 96753; 808-879-8811
-Whales Alive, P.O. Box 2058, Kihei, HI 96753; 808-874-6855

Article Courtesy of the Maui Visitors Bureau

See also:
- More Maui Articles

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