Tree thieves have chain sawed to stumps about 25 milo trees at Kanaha Beach Park in the past three to four months, and county officials and tree experts suspect the logs are being used for wood carvings.
In the most recent incident, the thieves cut through a wooden barrier to drive in their vehicles to haul out the logs near the dirt "kite surfer parking lot" on the county sewage treatment plant side of the park, said Mike Perry, a volunteer with Maui Community Work Day, on Monday.
They left behind stumps and smaller branches - debris that he had to haul out.
Thieves have sawed to stumps about 25 milo trees at Kanaha Beach Park in Naska in the last three to four months. In the latest brazen theft of the prized wood, the thieves cut a wooden barrier and drove their truck in to haul out the milo logs. County officials believe the milo is being taken from the county park to create wood carvings.
The Maui News / LEE IMADA photo
Milo trees, shown at Kanaha Beach Park, can tolerate the salt and windy air at the beach. Thieves have been cutting down the largest of the milo trees in the park. There is some debate about whether the trees are native or were brought by the early Polynesians to the islands.
The Maui News / LEE IMADA photo
"They selectively take the thick part" of the tree, said Perry, who has spent a lot of time in the past decade restoring the native ecosystem at the park near the Kahului Airport.
That and the fact that the milo tree, which is either native or was brought to the islands by the first Native Hawaiians, is a prized wood have authorities suspecting that the trees were harvested for wood carving.
"It has beautiful grain in the heartwood," said David Sakoda, Maui County arborist.
"All through the Pacific, the milo is the most common high-quality wood for carving," added Art Medeiros, a research biologist. "It's kind of the Toyota of wood."
He said the milo was used in making umeke, or food bowls.
"It doesn't give a taste to the poi," said Medeiros. "The milo is admired for lack of taste."
The milo is a good carving wood as well. When wet, the milo is easy to carve, and it dries reasonably hard, said Tom Calhoun, board member of the Hawaii Forestry Industry Association and owner of World Wood Works in Makawao. Some carvers turn the milo into tiki to sell to visitors.
"Because they are easy to carve, carvers like to get them," he added.
Reputable wood carvers get their lumber through an informal network of tree trimmers and certified tree arborists, he said. Knowing what kind of wood the artisans are seeking, tree trimmers and arborists alert carvers when a property owner wants to get rid of a tree that has good wood.
But chain sawing milo trees in a county park is not the way to do it, Calhoun said. It's against the law.
"They (the trees) were stolen," said Sakoda.
Maui County spokesman Rod Antone said that county parks department officials have filed a police report over the stolen trees and the damaged barrier.
Ernie Rezents, a certified arborist and professor emeritus of agriculture at the University of Hawaii Maui College, said the thieves could face fines of up to $1,000 per tree under a county tree ordinance that he helped draft.
"I wish they'd catch those son of a guns," he said, adding that the trees in the park are for everyone to enjoy and are not for the benefit of individuals. "To do that is really inconsiderate."
"You are taking from everybody and future generations," added Medeiros.
The thieves cut down the largest of the trees in the area that were 50 feet high and 25 years old, according to Perry.
"Those were the mature ones," said Sakoda. "It's a pretty significant theft."
He said that no tree inventory for Kanaha has been done so he doesn't know how many milo trees there are at Kanaha. But Sakoda said he believes that "there aren't that many for the area."
Thespesia populnea is the scientific name for the milo, which is part of the hibiscus family, said Rezents. The tree is tolerant of salt and wind and has a manageable root system and a dense round canopy.
It is "a valuable oceanside tree for shade," he said, adding that the milo is an ideal tree for a beachside park.
In such theft cases, everyone might know who cut down the trees, but authorities have difficulty linking the stolen trees to the suspect, said Calhoun. He suggested that county officials might want to take a picture of the stump, which may be matched against one from a suspect. Each tree's cross-section pattern is different and could act as a kind of fingerprint, he said.
Calhoun also suggested requiring carvers to have a bill of sale for their milo logs. The state implemented such a requirement for koa.
Sakoda noted that enforcement has been reduced at night and is hoping that the public will act as their eyes and ears. Antone urged the public to contact police or the parks department if they see trees being taken.
"It's really robbing from all of us," said Sakoda.
* Lee Imada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.