The early Polynesian settlers to Hawaiʻi brought sugar cane with them and demonstrated that it could be grown successfully in the islands.
As a later economic entity, sugar gradually replaced sandalwood and whaling in the mid‐19th century and became the principal industry in the islands, until it was succeeded by the visitor industry in 1960.
Hawaiʻi had the basic natural resources needed to grow sugar: land, sun and water. Hawai‘i’s economy turned toward sugar in the decades between 1860 and 1880; these twenty years were pivotal in building the plantation system.
Sugar‐cane farming gained this prestige without great difficulty because sugar cane soon proved to be the only available crop that could be grown profitably under the severe conditions imposed upon plants grown on the lands which were available for cultivation. (HSPA 1947)
A century after Captain James Cook’s arrival in Hawaiʻi, sugar plantations started to dominate the landscape. However, a shortage of laborers to work in the growing (in size and number) sugar plantations became a challenge. The only answer was imported labor.
There were three big waves of workforce immigration: Chinese 1852; Japanese 1885; and Filipinos 1905. Several smaller, but substantial, migrations also occurred: Portuguese 1877; Norwegians 1880; Germans 1881; Puerto Ricans 1900; Koreans 1902 and Spanish 1907.
It is not likely anyone then foresaw the impact this would have on the cultural and social structure of the islands. The sugar industry is at the center of Hawaiʻi’s modern diversity of races and ethnic cultures. Of the nearly 385,000 workers that came, many thousands stayed to become a part of Hawai‘i’s unique ethnic mix.
Hawai‘i continues to be one of the most culturally-diverse and racially-integrated places on the globe. Sugar changed the social fabric of Hawai‘i.
That is not the only influence that sugar production had in the Islands.
Interestingly, it was the sugar growers, significant users of Hawai‘i’s water resources, who led the forest reserve protection movement.
We are fortunate that a little over 100-years ago some forward thinkers had the good sense to set aside Hawai‘i’s forested lands and protected our forest watersheds under the State’s Forest Reserve system. While I was at DLNR, we oversaw these nearly 1-million acres of mauka lands.
The link between tree-planting and the sugar planters can be seen particularly clearly in the career of Harold Lyon, who arrived in Hawai‘i in 1907 as a plant pathologist in the employ of the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association (HSPA).
Diseases of sugar cane occupied Lyon’s efforts for several years, but his purview gradually broadened to include a variety of problems relating to Hawaiian agriculture, including deforestation. (Woodcock)
Lyon was a strong voice for forests. In an early report, he discussed the water situation on O‘ahu, the insufficient supplies of water available for agriculture, and the role of the forested high-elevation areas of the windward Ko‘olau in recharging the island’s aquifer.
He described the water budget and the action of forested watersheds in slowing the rate of runoff and increasing infiltration and flow of water to groundwater. (Woodcock)
It was evident to Lyon and others that deforestation was increasing runoff – water that was essentially lost to agriculture, since the topography of the islands, with their many short streams, makes impoundment, and in many cases diversion, impractical.
As evidence for the water-conserving role of vegetation, Lyon noted the drying out of many streams that had previously been more continuously flowing, an observation that by this time had been made repeatedly.
Lyon emphasized that the problem was not just increased demand for water but also the conditions determining supply – ‘‘The candle is burning at both ends and we only fan the flames’’ – and argued that resources should be committed to reforest the watersheds with ‘‘healthy, water-conserving forest’’. (Woodcock)
Neglect of the islands’ forests would be ‘‘suicidal,’’ for ‘‘everything fails with the failure of our water supply’’. (Lyon; Woodcock)
After more than a century of massive forest loss and destruction, the Territory of Hawai‘i acknowledged that preservation of the forest was vital to the future economic prosperity of the Islands.
Urged by sugarcane growers and government foresters concerned about the vanishing woodlands, the forest reserve system became the basis for the largest public-private partnership in the history of the Islands. (Last Stand)
On May 13, 1903, the Territory of Hawaiʻi, with the backing of the Hawaiʻi Sugar Planters’ Association, established the Board of Commissioners of Agriculture and Forestry. (HDOA) The next year, Ralph Sheldon Hosmer became the first Superintendent of Forestry in the Islands.
The forest reserves were useful for two primary purposes: water production for the Territory’s agricultural industries, and timber production to meet the growing demand for wood products. The forest reserve system should not lead to “the locking up from economic use of a certain forest area.” (Hosmer)
Even in critical watersheds the harvesting of old trees “is a positive advantage, in that it gives the young trees a chance to grow, while at the same time producing a profit from the forests”. (LRB)
A main concern was finding an alternative to importing redwood and Douglas-fir from California for construction timbers. In 1904 the government nursery was asked to grow timber tree species instead of its usual ornamental, flowering trees (pines, cypress, cedar and Douglas fir.) (Anderson)
“As an influential board member on the Agriculture and Forestry Commission, Harold Lyon succeeded in persuading the Territorial Commission to import seed of a vast number of alien tree species. … nearly 1,000 alien species were outplanted in Hawaiʻi forest reserves.” (Mueller-Dombois)
Various trees and plants were imported from diverse areas of the world including Madagascar, Australia, India, Brazil, the Malay states, China, the Philippines, southern Europe, the East Indies, the West Indies, New Zealand, Central America and South Africa.
Trees that successfully survived the Mānoa Valley soil conditions and promoted water conservation were then widely planted throughout the arboretum
Eucalyptus species, silk oak, paperbark and ironwood were the most frequently planted trees due to their fast growth and their resistance to adverse environmental conditions. However, these very qualities, as well as their ability to seed profusely, would lead to some species such as tropical ash and albizia. (Iwashita)
The number of trees planted rose to many millions by the 1930s, when the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was available for planting. From 1935 to 1941, with the help of the CCC, an average of close to two-million trees were planted per year in the forest reserves.
Lyon envisioned the plantations as a buffer zone that would be established between the remaining native forests and the lower-elevation agricultural lands to protect the native forests and perform the functions (maintaining input of water to aquifers.)
In his 1949 annual report to the HSPA entitled, ‘What is to be the fate of the arboretum?,’ Lyon declared the Mānoa Arboretum’s mission to test new plant introductions to be essentially complete; he believed that the HSPA should not remain the arboretum’s custodian.
On July 1, 1953, HSPA conveyed the Mānoa Arboretum to the Board of Regents of the University of Hawaiʻi. The regents were individually entrusted with the fiduciary duty of maintaining the arboretum. In 1962, the Board of Regents transferred the arboretum to the University of Hawaiʻi.
Dr. Lyon remained with the arboretum as its first director under the regents’ and university’s stewardship. After Dr. Lyon’s death in 1957, an advisory committee directed the arboretum until 1961, when Dr. George Gillette assumed the directorship on a part-time basis.
When Dr. Lyon died, the Board of Regents renamed the facility the Harold L Lyon Arboretum (Lyon Arboretum) in honor of the man so closely associated with its growth and fruition.