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5 eco-friendly activities across the Hawaiian Islands

Part of efforts for a healthier planet, an endemic forest is being reborn, tree by tree, up the slopes of Mauna Kea volcano at Kukaiau Ranch. Photo courtesy Hawaiian Legacy Tours/John De Mello

No matter your shoe size, your carbon footprint can be huge. Mālama ‘āina (caring for the land) begins with awareness. From conserving water by forgoing daily sheet and towel changes at hotels to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by eating local, the choices you make can have profound effects on the environment.

Here are 5 eco-friendly ways to explore our beautiful Aloha State while learning about and protecting Hawai‘i’s precious natural resources, and leaving them better than how you found them.

1. Hawai‘i Island: Plant a native tree

People holding a sapling in a mound of soil.

The Hawaiian Legacy Reforestation Initiative's goal is to plant 1.3 million trees statewide—one for every Hawai‘i resident.  Photo courtesy Hawaiian Legacy Tours

An endemic forest is being reborn, tree by tree, 2,600 feet up the slopes of Mauna Kea volcano at Kukaiau Ranch. Embark on a guided tour of the area on foot or via utility terrain vehicle and join the campaign to restore the forest by planting a koa seedling amid existing centuries-old greenery, including ‘ohi‘a and na‘u.

The Hawaiian Legacy Reforestation Initiative (HLRI) is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that partners with landowners and individual and corporate sponsors to establish and maintain sustainable endemic Hawaiian forests.

Native forests provide habitat for endangered or near-threatened wildlife, such as the pueo (Hawaiian short-eared owl) and ‘io (Hawaiian hawk), but fewer than 10% of such forests remain. Since its founding in 2014, HLRI has planted more than 600,000 native trees in Hawai‘i. Its goal is to plant 1.3 million trees statewide—one for every Hawai‘i resident.

Hawaiian Legacy Tours enables sponsors to plant their own native “legacy tree.” Thanks to state-of-the-art technology, participants can track their tree’s growth. Tours start at $55; tree-planting tours begin $175. Tours are also offered at Gunstock Ranch on O‘ahu. Participants plant milo and kou trees and travel to the site on horseback or an off-road vehicle (tours start at $65).

You may also like: Renew mind, body, and soul at 3 flower farms in Hawai’i

2. Kaua‘i: Clean a beach

A trio of people cleaning up ropes and other debris from a beach.

Removing marine debris from Hawai'i's beaches can be remarkably satisfying. Photo by Trygve Larsen

The tour’s name, Hike and Help, says it all: First, enjoy a morning hike, then kokua Kaua‘i by participating in a beach cleanup. Hike locations vary depending on weather conditions and the group’s fitness level. One option begins at Moloa‘a Beach on the northeast coast, where scenes from the pilot and first episode of the TV series Gilligan’s Island were filmed in November 1963.

The beach’s name is derived from the Hawaiian term molo a‘a, which means “matted roots.” In ancient times, wauke (paper mulberry) trees reputedly grew so thickly there, their roots were interwoven.

Monk seals and honu (Hawaiian sea turtles) occasionally loll on the sand at Moloa‘a. Red-footed boobies and great frigatebirds frequent the area year-round. Other seabirds—including albatross, tropic birds, and wedge-tailed shearwaters—can be spotted during their various nesting seasons.

After a lunch break, tourgoers don gloves and pick up tools and collection bags for a beach cleanup organized by the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation. In a few hours, that effort can yield some 600 pounds of litter and debris ranging from nets, buoys, and fishing traps to tires, slippers, and plastic bottles. The Wednesday Hike and Help tour includes a 4-hour round-trip hike; cost is $250 for up to 4 people ages 5 and older; kama‘āina receive a 25% discount.

You may also like: Beautiful waterfall hikes in Hawai‘i

3. Maui: Remove invasives, plant natives

People planting saplings while surrounded by the trunks of felled invasive trees.

Participating in a Community Native Tree Planting project, volunteers plant native species after felling invasive species. Photo by Sara Tekula/Skyline Conservation Initiative

In 2002, outdoor enthusiast Danny Boren launched Skyline Eco-Adventures (now Skyline Hawai‘i), the first commercial zip-line operator in the United States, and the Skyline Conservation Initiative (SCI) to further his commitment to environmental preservation.

Since then, SCI’s Pōhakuokalā Gulch Community Forest Restoration Project has removed invasive eucalyptus and wattle trees and restored 10 acres of native greenery in the forest that borders Skyline Hawai‘i’s tour site, 4,000 feet up the slopes of Haleakalā volcano.

Among the trees, plants, ferns, and shrubs now flourishing there are koa, ‘iliahi, a‘ali‘i, ‘ulei, maile, mamaki, and ‘ohi‘a lehua. Many of the 13,000 reintroduced trees tower 30 feet high, recharging the watershed and providing a safe, healthy home for native wildlife, including the ‘amakihi, a rare honeycreeper.

The forest is on private land that’s accessible only during Skyline Hawai‘i’s zip-line tours and 2- to 3-hour SCI workdays, which enable volunteers to not only see a montane mesic Hawaiian ecosystem but also to lend a hand to restore it. Email or check the website for ways to get involved.

You may also like: Extreme outdoor adventures in Hawai'i you have to try

4. Multiple islands: Travel pono

Overhead view of stand-up paddle boarders.

The nonprofit Sustainable Tourism Association of Hawai'i encourages locals and visitors to be good stewards of the state's precious natural resources.  Photo courtesy Maui Stand Up Paddle Boarding

The mission of the nonprofit 501(c)(3) Sustainable Tourism Association of Hawai‘i (STAH) is “to protect Hawai‘i’s unique natural environment and host culture through the promotion of responsible travel and educational programs.” Among its members are 40 tour operators on O‘ahu, Maui, Hawai‘i Island, and Kaua‘i who are committed to offering authentic experiences that protect the environment.

Each company has completed STAH’s rigorous certification program, which includes a third-party on-site audit.

STAH encourages visitors and kama‘āina to also be good stewards of Hawai‘i’s precious natural resources. Check out its Plastic Free Travel Guide and Travel Pono Tips.

You may also like: Nautical experiences on O‘ahu that will lure even avowed landlubbers

5. Multiple islands: Staycation with a free night

Women during a beach cleanup.

Volunteers participate in a beach cleanup on O‘ahu. Photo courtesy Sustainable Coastlines/Conrad Morgan

The Hawai‘i Tourism Authority and Hawai‘i Visitors and Convention Bureau offer the Mālama Hawai‘i program in collaboration with some 70 hotels, attractions, and conservation groups statewide. Here’s how it works: Hotel partners have created special Mālama Hawai‘i packages. Guests who participate in a hotel’s designated volunteer activity could receive a free extra night of accommodations or full-stay discounts (minimum stays required).

Activities include tree plantings, beach cleanups, and Hawaiian quilting. See the complete list of Mālama Hawai‘i offerings.

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi does her best to live green by reusing, recycling, and repurposing.

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