Using Investments And Technology To Rebuild Hawaii's Koa Forests : All Tech Considered One company is attempting reforestation with an innovative business model. Investors can track the coveted trees using digital IDs. Their money goes to plant new trees that won't be harvested.

Using Investments And Technology To Rebuild Hawaii's Koa Forests

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Tropical trees around the world have been decimated, including in Hawaii. The koa forests there have been cut down to make way for sugar plantations and cattle ranches. We're going to hear next about an innovative business model that aims at bringing back these forests. Jeff Tyler reports from the Big Island of Hawaii that the secret is a digital tag that helps track individual trees.

JEFF TYLER, BYLINE: At upscale Hawaiian shopping malls like this one, wood from the native koa tree is in high demand. The color ranges from light to dark brown. Koa's curving lines make it popular for furniture. It's also used for ukuleles.

JOHN KIRKPATRICK: People love the koa. They like the idea that it only grows here in Hawaii.

TYLER: This John Kirkpatrick, owner of Genesis Gallery. He shows me a three-foot vase made of lustrous koa wood.

And how much is that one?

KIRKPATRICK: That one is 9,000.

TYLER: Koa is expensive because it's increasingly rare. Most of the native forests have been cut down. Several projects aim to reforest the island with koa. One of the most innovative efforts is run by Hawaiian Legacy Hardwoods. From an all-terrain vehicle, company CEO Jeff Dunster tours the operation, climbing up steep dirt trails to reach 5,000 feet.

JEFF DUNSTER: We're walking through tall grass overlooking fields of new koa, eucalyptus beyond that, and way down below is the Pacific.

TYLER: Dunster started as a consumer of koa furniture. Then he discovered that he was part of the deforestation problem.

DUNSTER: We wanted to be creative with ways where we could put back forests, leave them intact and make it financially viable for the landowner.

TYLER: The company's business model relies on investors who pay around $110 dollars per tree. Over the next few decades, the trees will be harvested for timber, a potential windfall for investors.

DUNSTER: The historical data shows that koa has appreciated a thousand percent in the past 10 years.

TYLER: Money from the investments helps the company buy land and plant koa trees that will never be harvested. The company calls them legacy trees.

DUNSTER: For every investment tree we plant, we plant three legacy trees.

TYLER: Chief Operating Officer Darrell Fox gets down on his hands and knees to plant a legacy tree.

DARRELL FOX: The whole is made so that the tree is just at - right at ground level once it's planted. So that's a little more hole than I needed - add a little dirt to the bottom.

TYLER: Next, Fox pours a little water. Finally, he inserts an RFID tag in the soil next to the tree. The ID helps reassure both investors and conservationists.

FOX: The biggest concern was, how do I know you're not selling my tree multiple times? And that was one of the reasons we got involved in the RFID tagging program in the first place. So if you could look at the quarter-million-plus trees we've planted out here so far, every one of them has its own unique ID number.

TYLER: That ID number allows customers anywhere in the world to zero in on specific trees on the Internet.

FOX: The individual tree owner will be able to look at the database and see when the tree was planted, what its mother tree was - the one that provided the seed.

TYLER: Despite these innovations, there is some uncertainty in the process. For one thing, no one has successfully planted and grown koa trees for timber, though people have tried. J.B. Friday is a forester with the University of Hawaii.

J.B. FRIDAY: I've seen koa plantations that I know the original owner had the idea that he was going to be harvesting trees, and in hindsight, it's not going to happen. So I guess they lost money on that.

TYLER: There are threats from pests and diseases and the possibility that these newly planted trees won't yield the kind of wood most valued in the marketplace. Hawaiian Legacy Hardwoods advises investors about the risks, including the possibility of a total loss. Nonetheless, the company already has a waitlist of investors lined up to buy trees for next year's planting season. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Tyler in Hilo, Hawaii.

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