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5 eco-friendly activities across the Hawaiian Islands

Volunteer removes marine debris off of remote coastline in Anahola, Hawaii on the Island of Kauai. In 2020 volunteers hauled away nearly 129,000 lbs of litter and marine debris from Kauai's coastal areas. Mahalo Volunteers! A volunteer removes marine debris off the coastline of Kauai. | Photo by Barbara Wiedner/Surfrider Foundation

No matter what your shoe size is, your carbon footprint can be huge. Malama aina (caring for the land) begins with awareness. From forgoing daily changes of sheets and towels at a hotel to conserve water, to eating local to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because your food didn’t have to be transported far to reach you, the choices you make can have profound effects on the environment. Here are five eco-friendly ways you can explore beautiful Hawaii while learning about and protecting the Islands’ precious natural resources, and leaving them in a better state than you found them.

1. Hawai‘i Island: Plant a native tree

Keawehano Comstock, age 8, planting this Legacy Koa Tree.

Keawehano Comstock, age 8, gets ready to plant a koa tree. | Photo by Siana Hunt/Kapaelani Comstock

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 UTV (utility terrain vehicle) and join the campaign to restore the forest by planting a koa or iliahi (sandalwood) seedling amid existing centuries-old greenery, including ohia and nau.

The Hawaiian Legacy Reforestation Initiative (HLRI; legacyforest.org) is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that partners with landowners and individual and corporate sponsors to establish and maintain sustainable endemic Hawaiian forests. Hawaiian Legacy Tours furthers that cause by enabling sponsors to personally plant a native “legacy tree.” Thanks to state-of-the-art radio-frequency identification technology, participants can track the growth of their tree online at findmy.legacytrees.org.

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 percent of such forests remain. Since its founding in 2014, HLRI has planted 525,000 native trees in Hawaii. Its goal is to plant 1.3 million trees statewide—one for every Island resident.

Info: Hawaiian Legacy Tours Welcome Center, 42-011 Koholalele Road, Paauilo. (844) 733-6737. Tree-planting tours start at $120; without tree-planting, $45. Tours are also offered at Gunstock Ranch, 56-250 Kamehameha Highway, on Oahu. Participants plant milo and kou trees and travel to the site on horseback or an off-road vehicle (tours start at $109).

2. Kauai: Clean a beach

Surfrider Foundation Kauai Chapter volunteer Keith Rich assesses a large ghost net at Lydgate Beach.

Surfrider Foundation volunteer Keith Rich assesses a large net at Lydgate Beach, Kauai. | Photo by Trygve Larsen

The name of the tour, Hike and Help, says it all: First, enjoy a morning hike, then kokua Kauai by participating in a beach cleanup. Hike locations vary, depending on weather conditions and the fitness level of the group. One option begins at Moloaa 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 aa, 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 Moloaa. Red-footed boobies and great frigatebirds frequent the area year-round. Other seabirds—including albatrosses, 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 (surfrider.org). 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.

Info: Off the Beaten Path Kauai. Meet at Moloaa Sunrise Fruit Stand, 6011 Koolau Road, Anahola. (808) 212-4106. The Hike and Help tour includes a four-hour round-trip hike; cost is $250 for up to four people ages 5 and older; kamaaina receive a 25 percent discount. 

3. Maui: Remove invasives, plant natives

Community Native Tree Planting after invasive species were removed

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 Hawaii), 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 Pohakuokala 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 Hawaii’s tour site, 4,000 feet up the slopes of Haleakala volcano.

Among the trees, plants, ferns, and shrubs now flourishing there are koa, iliahi, aalii, ulei, maile, mamaki, and ohia 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 three of Skyline Hawaii’s zip-line tours and two-to three-hour SCI workdays, which enable volunteers to not only see a montane mesic Hawaiian ecosystem but also to literally lend a hand to restore it.

Info: Skyline Conservation Initiative. Meet at Skyline Hawaii’s Haleakala zip-line course, 18303 Crater Road (Highway 378), Kula. (808) 878-8400. At press time, the 2021 schedule had not been confirmed. Call, email joe@skylineconservation.org, or check the website for dates.

4. Multiple islands: Travel pono

Stand-up paddle boarders in Maui

Maui Stand Up Paddle Boarding, a member of the Sustainable Tourism Association, of Hawai’i (STAH) offers eco-friendly activities. | Photo courtesy Maui Stand Up Paddle Boarding

The mission of the nonprofit 501(c)(3) Sustainable Tourism Association of Hawaii (STAH) is “to protect Hawaii’s unique natural environment and host culture through the promotion of responsible travel and educational programs.” Among its members are 42 tour operators on Oahu, Maui, Hawaii Island, and Kauai who are committed to offering authentic experiences that protect the environment. All of the companies have completed STAH’s rigorous certification program, which includes a third-party on-site audit.

STAH encourages visitors and kamaaina to also be good stewards of Hawaii’s precious natural resources. Check out its Plastic Free Travel Guide and Travel Pono Tips

Info: Sustainable Tourism Association of Hawaii. (808) 800-3531.

5. Multiple islands: Staycation with a free night

olunteers can participate in a self-directed beach clean-up as part of Mālama Hawai‘i. The photos were taken at Makapu‘u on O’ahu.

Volunteers participate in a beach cleanup at Makapuu on Oahu. | Photo by Conrad Morgan/Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii

The Hawaii Tourism Authority and Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau have launched the Malama Hawaii program in collaboration with some 70 hotels, airlines, attractions, and conservation groups statewide. Here’s how it works: Hotel partners have created special Malama Hawaii packages. Guests who book a package and participate in the hotel’s designated volunteer activity will receive a free extra night of accommodations.

Activities include tree plantings, beach cleanups, and Hawaiian quilting. Visit the website for a complete list of Malama Hawaii offerings.

Info: Hawaii Tourism Authority and Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau

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AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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