In the Garden: Killing with Kindness - Sandy Keenan, The New York Times

Sandy Keenan, The New York Times
The New York Times
December 31, 2013

View the full story online at The New York Times complete with photos and video / A version of this article appears in print on January 2, 2014, on page D1 of the New York edition with the headline: Back to Paradise.

WAIKANE, Hawaii — On days he can round up at least one volunteer to help him in his mission to restore native species to the forest, Paul Zweng commutes in an all-wheel-drive pickup from the home he shares with his wife and children in suburban Honolulu. Hugging the coast north toward the striking mountain terrain on the windward side of Oahu, he stops to pick up Sam or Charlotte or Jim. The regulars.

At the Waikane Valley, he turns inland onto a muddy road, driving past the clapboard Church of the True God and a pig farm that welcomes visitors with an animal skull mounted on its entry post. The overgrowth thickens as he runs parallel to an old fence covered with warnings of unexploded ordnance, written in four languages. Only a fool or a feral pig would trespass here.

Up a ways, he gets out and opens the gate to his 1,443 acres, which rise from tillable flatlands to tropical forests and a summit 2,600 feet above the Pacific. This land sits deep in the culture of old Hawaii. There are a number of archaeological sites here, as well as the remnants of very old taro farms. And signs posted around the valley, now faded, testify to more-recent history: “Keep the Country Country,” they say, and “New City, What a Pity.”

Back in the 1970s, members of the Waikane Community Association blockaded the highway to keep bulldozers — and the onslaught of condos and suburbia — from encroaching on their rural way of life. Things became so sticky at one point that the governor stepped in and the state bought much of the land to limit development, becoming the leaseholder for many of the farms and homes, an unusual arrangement still in place.

Contemporary versions of these signs denounce the previous owner of Mr. Zweng’s land, who wanted to build a luxury golf course with all the trimmings.

“I sure never want to see my name on one of those signs,” said Mr. Zweng, 56, showing a visitor around.

True, he has development plans of his own, but they’re not the kind that anyone around here expected.

Mr. Zweng envisions a day when some of his forest will be returned to the natural state it was in before 20,000 kinds of invasive plants and animals arrived, carried by explorers, tourists and indefatigable birds. He likes to point out that what he’s attempting is much harder than the discipline known as forest management. “Here, we’re recreating the native forest,” he said.

Ask him when the land was pristine enough to satisfy his botanical tastes, and Mr. Zweng answers without hesitation: “Back before Captain Cook arrived.” In other words, sometime before 1778.

If you have a mission of this magnitude, it helps to have funds to match. And Mr. Zweng is not short on funds. But this is a fairly recent development.

For most of his life, he was an exploration geologist who scoured the planet — spending much of his time outdoors in places like Peru, Mongolia, Chile and the Democratic Republic of Congo — in search of fresh sources of gold, copper, coal and rare earths. At one point, when their three now-teenage children were very young, he and his wife, Carrie, who is now 52, lived at a Peruvian job site five hours from the nearest supermarket.

But along with a Ph.D. in applied earth sciences from Stanford, Mr. Zweng had a knack for raising capital and enthusiasm. And with experience, he learned to follow his hunches about where precious resources were likely to be found.

All of that paid off big when the two Canadian companies he was involved with — as the chief executive of one (QGX) and a founder and director of the other (Antares) — identified huge reserves of coal in Mongolia and copper in Peru. In 2008, QGX was sold for $265 million, and two years later, Antares was sold for $650 million (both figures are in Canadian dollars).

For the first time in his life, Mr. Zweng said, “I had a nickel and a dime jingling in my pocket.”

Suddenly unemployed, wealthy and marooned on Oahu (his children were enrolled in private school there, so the family had chosen to stay put), he had to decide what to do next; idling wasn’t an option.

“I get bored to death on the beach,” he said, “and don’t give a gnat’s bottom about golf.”

But for as long as he could remember, nature had been a passion. So he volunteered for a forest restoration program run by the Army to help repair damage done to the land during military training.

Even with his background in earth sciences, though, Mr. Zweng had a hard time identifying plants. Frustrated, he signed up to audit a graduate-level botany course at the University of Hawaii. Lots of people sat in on this class, but Mr. Zweng was one of the few who never missed it, memorizing the common, Hawaiian and Latin names of countless species, a real feat for someone with dyslexia. “That class changed my life,” he said, by inspiring his current undertaking.

With a new sense of purpose, he set about finding land where he could put his knowledge to work. He considered 350 acres on Oahu owned by Dole. But then he heard about this enormous vertical parcel in the Waikane Valley, which had once sold for more than $9 million but was now in foreclosure.

Armed with cashier’s checks, he showed up at the auction to bid, convinced he had not brought enough money. Soon enough, though, he realized that he was the only viable bidder — and that all of that gorgeous land was now his. For nearly $2.2 million, or about the price of a luxury home on a small lot near Honolulu, he owned two square miles of his kind of paradise.

When longtime residents hear what Mr. Zweng is up to, they are often horrified, at least until he explains his plan. They have come to love the large, canopied umbrella trees that he is working so hard to kill, particularly the towering albizia, even though they are among the worst bullies of these forests.

“I used to love them, too,” he said. “But now I know how much damage they do.”

Even the state tree, the kukui (Aleurites moluccana), is not native to the islands; it’s a Polynesian import. He kills them, too, because they squeeze out precious dwindling native species like the koa, ohia and lama trees.

To date, Mr. Zweng has poisoned 356 towering albizia and 1,293 schefflera trees, injecting herbicides directly into cuts made into their girdled trunks, so the trees die and eventually collapse without too much collateral damage (although, he said, “I’m sure the birds are peeved at me”).

Invasive trees like these thrive all over the low-lying part of Oahu. But that terrain was lost long ago. In this private preserve, formally known as the Ohulehule Forest Conservancy, Mr. Zweng is trying to see whether he can hold a line of his own at the higher elevations of 400 to 1,300 feet, where the status of native plants and trees is not yet as bleak.

The state’s department of land and natural resources likes his project so much that it is awarding him $616,000 over the next 10 years. The federal Fish and Wildlife Service has given him a $10,000 grant for another project: protecting the elepaio, an endangered mountain bird found only in Hawaii that is being eaten into extinction by tree-climbing black rats. (The rats, which are not native, are largely responsible for the 50 percent decline in elepaio since the 1990s; Mr. Zweng is installing traps to deliver a mortal punch to them.)

And the United States Department of Agriculture chose his land for the introduction of a Brazilian insect known to curtail the spread of another invasive plant, the strawberry guava tree.

It’s amazing when you consider that, as he puts it, “I’m new at this.”

But as Sam Ohu Gon III, a scientist and cultural adviser with the Nature Conservancy, said: “To have someone come in and do something like this in modern times is unprecedented. He’s demonstrating that with a little bit of help, the natives can come back and take hold. It’s not a lost cause.”

Eric VanderWerf, an ornithologist and conservation biologist who is working with Mr. Zweng, said, “He’s one of the very few people in Hawaii, or even the country, interested in protecting biodiversity on his own land and willing to spend his own money to do it.”

Dr. VanderWerf admits he was skeptical at first. When Mr. Zweng contacted him, he did an online search “and found all this mining stuff,” he said. “The first thing I thought was, ‘Before, he was exploiting natural resources and now he’s trying to protect them.’ ” He added: “In some ways, I don’t care. I’m just glad he’s doing what he’s doing now.”

Eventually Mr. Zweng, who grew up in Palo Alto, Calif., plans to build a house, a base for his family with views of Kaneohe Bay. And next spring, with the state’s blessing, he will start preparing five test acres for the planting of cacao trees, whose seeds can be fermented and dried into cacao beans, the raw material for chocolate. (Though not native to Hawaii, cacao is noninvasive and well suited to the land, climate and community, he said.)

But there is so much else to do first: roads to build, rats to outmaneuver, volunteers to coordinate.

Sam Callejo, 69, who was once chief of staff for Ben Cayetano, the former governor, rarely misses his regular day of work on Wednesday. Charlotte Yamane, 71, an experienced volunteer with the Oahu Invasive Species Committee, helps out whenever she can, collecting native seeds and plants from surrounding properties for Mr. Zweng. And Jim Keenan, a musician and naturalist who works nights as a security guard, is on duty most Thursdays.

Already, these three and various other volunteers seem to be making a difference: there are signs of hope in the forest. In meadows thinned of invasive trees and shrubs, new shoots of indigenous koa trees are sprouting, along with the flowering mountain naupaka and the palaa fern. The bright yellow kookoolau, a flower found only in Hawaii, is flourishing here, too.

Still, Mr. Zweng worries about his own mortality and how many years he has left to work in the forest. He dreams of the day the land is restored enough that he might see a bright red apapane or an orange-and-red iiwi, native birds that haven’t been in evidence in the valley for years.

Because in all likelihood, he said, the true verdict on his work will come not from environmentalists or the community, but from nature: “Nature will tell us we’ve made a difference.”

View the full story online at The New York Times complete with photos and video / A version of this article appears in print on January 2, 2014, on page D1 of the New York edition with the headline: Back to Paradise.

 

Contact Us

Palm Beach Zoo

1301 Summit Boulevard
West Palm Beach, Florida 33405-3035
(561) 547-9453

Support for the Palm Beach Zoo is provided by:

Sponsored in part by the State of Florida, Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs and the Florida Council on Arts and Culture.