MAKUA VALLEY, Hawaii - The rough crunching sounds of spiked hiking shoes mixed with morning bird calls, as a crew of field technicians from the Oahu Army Natural Resource Program (OANRP) made their way into the native forest at the back of Makua Valley, recently.
The crew walked at a brisk pace, anxious to get in position to receive a delivery of precious air cargo that had taken years to prepare.
Twenty-nine endangered Cyanea superba plants were being reintroduced to the forest of their origin.
Since 1998, when less than 10 wild Cyanea superba remained on the planet, OANRP staff have taken proactive measures to improve the plant's chances for survival.
The remaining wild plants are closely monitored, year after year. Although they were producing flowers and fruit, the lack of new seedlings on the forest floor did not bode well for the future of wild Cyanea superba in Hawaii. Recognizing this sure path to extinction, OANRP intervened.
Fences were built to keep pigs and goats from damaging the Cyanea's fragile roots and seedlings. Invasive weeds were kept in check. Slug deterrents were put in place to keep these nonnative plant predators from nibbling up precious Cyanea seedlings.
Rat traps and rat bait stations were put in place to keep rodents from decimating the Cyanea fruit. And if the OANRP staff could get there before the rats, they would collect fruit and bring the seeds back to the seed lab.
Precious seeds were placed in petri dishes and grown in incubators. From there, seedlings were moved into nurseries where they were nurtured and monitored until they reached a full meter in height, a process that normally takes up to three years.
As OANRP invested 10 years of intensive management of Cyanea seedlings in its nurseries, the last remaining Cyanea superba went extinct in the wild. Since OANRP had anticipated what would eventually happen, the Cyanea seedlings would soon fill the void in the native forest of Makua.
To date, more than 250 Cyanea superba plants have been grown and returned to Makua by OANRP staff.
The endangered Cyanea were loaded into a plant box designed for air transport and flown by helicopter to field crew members waiting in Makua forest. The crew members unloaded each plant and packed them on their backs into shady gulches for planting.
When asked why this particular reintroduction of Cyanea superba was unique, Matt Keir, OANRP rare plant manager, could barely contain his enthusiasm.
Just this month, a researcher in the forests of Makua noticed seedlings beneath a handful of reintroduced Cyanea, according to Keir.
"We found seedlings for the first time, really ever," said Keir. "That's exactly what we're trying to do. We're trying to plant little seed-making machines. We grow them up, so they'll survive well. ...We hope that they just dump seeds on the ground for the next 25 years."
OANRP staff are hopeful that this reintroduction of Cyanea superba will be a significant boost to seed-making potential.
"If we can protect the forest around them, then hopefully we can just step back and let it happen," said Keir.
With a current staff of 53, the OANRP works to protect and preserve 73 endangered species (one bird, nine tree snails, and 63 plants) on seven Army installations throughout the island of Oahu.
Roughly 80% of the endangered species on Oahu can be found on Army land.
With a whopping 317 threatened and endangered species, Hawaii is often referred to as the "endangered species capital of the world." More endangered species per square mile are located on Hawaiian islands than any other place on the planet.
On Oahu, 80 percent of endangered plants and animals can be found on Army land.