What started 50 years ago on a plot of cattle-stripped land has grown into the only tropical cloud forest in the United States with over 100 species of bamboo, gigantic tree ferns, and many rare and endangered species affording visitors an opportunity to learn firsthand about the value of conservation
As I drive up the windy road, high above the white-sand beaches and black lava fields of the Kona coastline into an area covered by ‘Ōhi‘a trees and lush rainforest, I am struck by how ecologically diverse the island of Hawai’i truly is. As the largest inhabited island of the Hawaiian archipelago, the island of Hawai’i has almost every subclimate zone on the planet altogether in one relatively small place.
At the entrance of the 70-acre Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary, a white-haired, eighty-ish-looking man is greeting visitors. Wearing a sweatshirt that reads “May the forest be with you” Norman Bezona’s smile spreads ear to ear, crinkling the deep creases along the corners of his eyes. He can hardly wait to tell us the story behind this unique forest. It is one of 736 known tropical cloud forests in the world and the only one in the United States except for the El Yunque National Forest located in the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.
Our small group of ten visitors follows Norman inside the entrance, stepping into a magical oasis of peace and tranquility. Statues reminiscent of Bali line the property. Norman informs us that Bali is one of his favorite places on earth, except for of course the island of Hawai’i. We sit on a wooden balcony overlooking the vast depths of the forest while Norman pulls up a chair, readying himself to start our first lesson.
“Does anyone know the difference between a tropical rainforest and a tropical cloud forest?” Norman asks the group.
One blond-haired, pig-tailed girl eagerly raises her hand and replies: “It rains a lot in a rainforest while a cloud forest feels like being in the middle of the clouds“.
“Correct” beams Norman. “Tropical cloud forests require a unique set of very specific geographic and climatic features“, Norman continues. As opposed to tropical rainforests which are located low to the ground and receive most of their precipitation from rain, tropical cloud forests are located high up in the mountains and receive most of their water from moisture in the air. The moisture derives from bodies of water and is swept up the mountain, condensing on the leaves of trees forming a persistent mist and cloud cover.
Yet today is noticeably different. Instead of being completely shrouded in clouds, it is quite sunny which is unusual for a cloud forest.
“When I give you the tour, you will see that much of the foliage is folding inwards to protect themselves from the sun and to conserve what little water they have after an unusually long drought,” says Norman.
As much as I have traveled to tropical places around the world, I have never been to a tropical cloud forest before and there was a reason. They are rare.
Tropical cloud forests are so rare -they cover less than half of one percent of the world’s landmass – yet are home to 15% of the world’s species. Today, these extraordinary ecosystems are significantly endangered by climate change and deforestation. Despite enormous conservation efforts, as much as 8% of these forests have been lost over the past 20 years, according to an alarming study by Yale University.
That’s where the Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary comes in. Norman Bezona, a retired Professor at the University of Hawai’i and a world-renowned expert and conservationist in tropical horticulture has managed his privately-held 70-acre Kona Cloud Sanctuary for over 50 years. Even at the age of 85, Norman continues to do whatever he can to protect, conserve and inspire future generations to fight to save Hawai’i’s endangered diverse ecosystems by offering private educational tours to travelers, students, and scientists from around the world. He also works with both the local and international communities of farmers and conservationists with research on what types of trees to plant for reforestation.
As Norman continues our lesson, he tells the group that tropical rainforests and cloud forests are being destroyed worldwide. Much of the forest surrounding the Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary is being subdivided into small lots, bulldozed, and cleared for private owners. Global climate change has also continued to wreak havoc and threaten the future of forests’ flora and fauna. We could see the impact clearly during our visit as the plants seemed to be pleading for rain.
“Are there any more questions?” quips Norman. “I can talk for hours about the forest and I need to make sure we have time to go on our tour“.
As the group shakes their heads, Norman gingerly stands up with a smile. Despite having two knee replacements, Norman continues to lead the majority of the sanctuary’s three-hour private guided tours, hoping to instill his passion for this unique ecosystem with others before it is too late.
“I am so grateful to be able to do these tours again” Norman smiles. “For two years, I had to sit out while my knees recovered. I love being back in the forest“.
As we walk inside the magical forest it feels like we were being swept into a movie set from Lord of the Rings. “Parts of Avatar were filmed in this very place” beamed Norman. “Take a look over there at the giant tree ferns and the different types of moss“.
As I turn my head and look up at the enchanted canopy of towering trees, Norman reminds me to also be sure to keep an eye down below. On the ground, different variations of thick furry moss grow over gnarled tree roots woven like a thread throughout the trail. While much of the sanctuary (over 55 of its 70 acres) is still covered in native, untouched plants, the 15 acres we are exploring today were planted only 30 years ago on cattle-grazed, barren land.
“Some of the trees reach over 100 feet” Norman smiles, “proving that the non-native tree species planted here grow well in this environment“.
Besides launching the sanctuary as an outdoor laboratory for his students at the University of Hawai’i, Norman also uses the sanctuary as an experiment to test different species of bamboo, ferns, and other plants. This knowledge is shared with local and international farmers and conservationists to help with reforestation.
As we walk deeper into the forest, we stop to admire a glorious rainbow Eucalyptus tree, its trunk crisscrossed in browns, yellows, greens, and orange. “These are great plants for reforestation” Norman points out. “However they are highly flammable so would not be good for California“.
All around us is nothing but trees. The sanctuary abounds with ancient Koa, ‘Ōhi‘a, over 100 varieties of bamboo, and gigantic tree ferns, some of which are 30 feet or more in height. Mosses hug tree trunks and orchids present a burst of color into the green.
“The native forest contains many rare and endangered species which Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary is committed to protecting” Norman states. “It is also home to many endemic and exotic birds, including the Hawaiian Hawk and Honey Creepers. At 3,000 feet elevation directly above the Kona coast, the cloud forest helps supply water to agriculture, golf courses, residences, and hotels below“.
Yet like most of the planet, the delicate balance of the sanctuary’s unique ecosystem is threatened due to human impact, climate change, and also a new incurable fungal disease called Rapid ‘Ōhi‘a Death (ROD). ROD is killing the most abundant native tree in the state of Hawai’i at alarming rates, especially on the island of Hawai’i where the uncurable disease has reached all districts. It has the potential to kill all ʻōhiʻa trees statewide.
As Rapid ‘Ōhi‘a Death is rapidly deforesting thousands of acres of land, the sanctuary is doing critical research on how to replace the ‘Ōhi‘a trees over the next few decades which will be vital to the survival of Hawai’i’s forests.
“Environmental conservation and reverence for the natural landscape of the Kaloko area are essential elements of the Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary mission and vision,” Norman says. “We aspire to set an example that people can live in harmony with the forest. That is why our tours are so important to the future of the cloud forest’s success. Every experience is an opportunity to increase awareness and hopefulness for healthy forests and people”.
As the tour came to a close, our group pulled aside the trail to take one final look at this extraordinary ecosystem. Norman pointed at the curling foliage of the plants and trees. “They wilt to protect themselves from the severe drought” Norman explains.
“The forest is crying”.
If you go:
The Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary is located at the base of Mount Hualalai and is roughly a 15-minute drive from Kona. To book a tour or inquire about reservations click here.