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More than 34,000 acres of forest in Hawaii have been killed by a mysterious disease. The blight is affecting a native tree critical to the state's natural water supply and cultural heritage. Molly Solomon of Hawaii Public Radio filed this report.
MOLLY SOLOMON, BYLINE: Deep in the forest of Hawaii, a native tree called 'ohi'a reigns king. The tall canopy tree dominates the islands' forests, especially here on the Big Island. 'Ohi'a, often the first plant to grow from a fresh lava flow, is known for its resilience. That's what makes a recent discovery all the more tragic - 'ohi'a is dying.
The disease called Rapid 'Ohi'a Death was first spotted on the eastern side of the Big Island. A group of scientists drives me out there to what they call ground zero. Looking at the land today, what was once lush green rainforest is now barren, littered with dead trees. J.B. Friday is an extension forester with the University of Hawaii.
J.B. FRIDAY: Out of hundreds of trees that we're looking at, maybe two or three of the 'ohi'a trees still have leaves on them. That's heartbreaking for people who knew what this forest was 10 years ago.
SOLOMON: Using a small ax, he begins chopping at a dying tree, revealing signs that the fungus has taken hold.
FRIDAY: See that tree over there that we're looking at now that you could see is turning brown? When we went inside and chopped on that, the symptoms are right there.
SOLOMON: In 2010, Friday started getting phone calls from landowners in the area reporting 'ohi'a trees dying on their property.
FRIDAY: We took some samples, we didn't get anything unusual. But by 2013, it became apparent that something was spreading rapidly.
SOLOMON: Friday called up his colleague Flint Hughes, a research ecologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service.
FLINT HUGHES: This forest was really a jewel of native diversity. It was perhaps the best example of a mature 'ohi'a-dominated forest.
SOLOMON: Hughes calls 'ohi'a critical to maintaining Hawaii's watershed. Raindrops and condensation filter through the trees' leaves, keeping the ground well-saturated. It also provides habitat and food for endangered native birds.
HUGHES: This is our everything tree. It's the most widespread, the foundational species for our forests. If we lose 'ohi'a, it will transform our forests.
SOLOMON: In addition to its environmental role, 'ohi'a is also important culturally. Its wood was used to create tools and weapons, says University of Hawaii professor Kalena Silva. And hula dancers often adorn themselves with its blossoms.
KALENA SILVA: I think the loss of 'ohi'a lehua would almost be like losing a member of your family. It's that important. It has that much meaning.
LISA KEITH: This is the Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center's laboratory.
SOLOMON: Plant pathologist Lisa Keith is leading the research on Rapid 'Ohi'a Death. For the past year, she's been studying tree samples and performing what she calls CSI tree autopsies. And what she's found isn't all grim. Keith says even in the most devastated areas, some trees are surviving.
KEITH: I think it's still hopeful that we will find ones that it's not an escapee, that it actually is natural resistance, that we can then, you know, bank seed or propagate and replant. And that's some of the work for the future.
SOLOMON: A more immediate concern is stopping the spread of the disease. Recent aerial surveys show the fungus has already devastated trees in tourist destinations like Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Whether Rapid 'Ohi'a death will spread to other islands depends on Hawaii's success at containing it quickly. For NPR News, I'm Molly Solomon in Hilo, Hawaii.
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