All in a day’s work

Catching a ride on a helicopter, trekking through jungle and rappelling down cliffs are all in a day’s work for Palani Wright. The Lahainaluna High School graduate helps protect Maui’s native forest with the West Maui Mountains Watershed Partnership. The nonprofit organization of public and private landowners works to stop the spread of invasive species in the mountains from Ukumehame to Honolua to Waiehu and Waikapu, protecting the island’s natural watershed.

Born into a fishing family, Wright grew up on the ocean but had always felt intrigued by the mountains above Lahaina. He was working as a volunteer with Hui O Waa Kaulua, the voyaging canoe organization, when watershed coordinator Chris Brosius approached the group, looking to recruit an intern. Wright jumped at the chance.

“The part that caught my eye was just being in the forest,” he recalls.

Wright started work as an intern supported through the Americorps program. By the time his stint was up, Brosius offered him a full-time position.

“I knew what needed to be done, and I was already doing the job,” Wright says.

Seven years later, he now manages teams of field techs as a crew leader.

Wright says no two days on the mountain are alike. His team might be trekking through high rain forest above Kahakuloa, or scrambling over steep and rocky terrain in the Kahoma area.

Crews are usually transported to the work area by helicopter and spend much of their time building or repairing fences to control the spread of grazing animals, which can damage sensitive native plants.

“Fences are our first line of defense,” he says.

The helicopter will drop fencing materials at 90-foot intervals, and then Wright’s team will carry the pins and wire to where it needs to go. That might mean hauling it through wet forest, or rappelling down a steep mountain to get in position.

“I was taught to work hard, so I enjoy it,” he says. “It’s kind of a guy thing, I think. You like to see how much you can get done in a day.”

Other aspects of Wright’s job include animal-control operations, plant management and removing invasive weeds like strawberry guava, a choking tree he sees as one of the biggest threats to native forest.

“Our No. 1 priority for West Maui is strawberry guava,” he says. “It’s a crazy, extremely invasive plant. If you cut it down and drop it on the ground, especially in wet forest, that shoot will reattach itself to the ground.”

Wright has also learned to recognize the signs of different animals in the forest. Feral cows look “like a bulldozer went through the forest,” he says. “They’re 800 pounds, their hooves are bigger – they do a lot of damage.”

Rooting pigs look like a “tiller” dug up the ground, while deer and goats are harder to spot.

“They’re more discreet animals, so they’re not going to show as much of a presence until there’s a lot of them,” he says. “They just nibble at the new shoots, so you have to look at the new shoots of the trees and grass.”

Wright says his favorite part of the job is spending time in the forests.

“There’s a lot of times when it’s hard, you’re rappelling and stuff,” he says. “But I think overall, I just like being in the mountain. The way our society is built, I like going to the mountains to get away from all that stuff. It’s peaceful, and things are real.”

And his work has sparked a new passion: to preserve native forests for future generations. He wants more people on Maui to understand how important native plants and animals are to the survival of the ecosystem and Hawaiian culture. Many of his younger nieces and nephews don’t know much about the watershed, so he talks to them about the work he does.

“We need these plants and animals in order for our culture to survive,” he says. “Without these plants and animals, how can we preserve our culture as living beings, not as museum relics?”

In addition to working for the West Maui Mountains Watershed Partnership, Wright continues to volunteer with Hui O Waa Kaulua, both in building the canoe and as a crew member and captain. He sees many parallels between the two projects.

“There’s a saying that your canoe is your island – you treat your canoe with kindness, because she’s going to take care of you like an island,” he says. “The concept is the same: maintaining what we have, in balance.”

* Ilima Loomis is a Maui-based writer and editor. Do you have interesting neighbors? Tell us about them at Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.