Hawaiian Legacy Hardwoods plants the trees of tomorrow

Films like The Lorax have made sustainability and talking trees seem feasible. Hawaiian Legacy Hardwoods (HLH), a business focusing on the sustainable production of tropical hardwoods and the preservation of forests, makes these fantasies a reality. Well, almost.

Although “talking tree” plans are still in the works, more than 140,000 trees have already been planted on the Big Island–each with a special, high-tech RFID tag with GPS tracking embedded in the root ball. “When the tree is growing in the nursery, we collect the source data,” says CEO Jeffrey Dunster. “We know … the GPS coordinates of the mother tree, who planted it. [The tag’s software] is designed specifically for what we are doing.”

Many people “give” a legacy tree ($60) in memory of loved ones. Trees are also planted to commemorate weddings, anniversaries and graduations. A charity of the customer’s choice receives $20 of the cost, and more than 50 charity companies have benefited from HLH. “Our goal is not to make it a burden to plant a tree, but a fun thing,” says Dunster. “It’s endless, the things you can do with this stuff.”

After only a year in business, HLH has about 3,000 partners who give back the wood they use. Dunster says, “Martin & MacArthur consumes more koa wood than anybody in the state, but every time they sell a piece of furniture, they plant a tree in honor of the person who bought that furniture.” Print companies choose to offset their wood consumption by planting trees to replace the paper. “The people we deal with actually want to be green. They’re always proactive, they’re always thinking about how they can do things better.”

Reforestation means more than just preserving trees. According to Dunster, koa butterflies–one of two native butterflies–have begun to return to the forest due to the newly planted trees. HLH also helps preserve the ‘akiapolaau, a native woodpecker that depends on tropical forests for survival.

Above all, Dunster believes teaching the next generation is the key to helping the ecosystem. “If we don’t, they won’t understand why we put this forest in the first place and they’re just going to take it down again.” Someday, he would like HLH to visit kindergarten classes and have each child plant a seed in a portable nursery and record a message. “Then, somewhere down the road like in sixth or 10th grade, we’ll do a field trip,” he envisions. “They can plug [the tree’s] GPS into their phones and it’ll point them in the direction they should be walking. Along the way, all the trees will be talking to them.”

It sounds almost unbelievable, but if the likes of Siri can do it, why not trees? Dunster looks forward to such a world where, “all of the sudden, the forest is more than just a bunch of trees. They are stories to be told.”