One by one, the island’s eucalyptus trees are dying

With Land Prep LLC owner Donald DeCoite pulling with a cable attached to his excavator and chainsaw operator Kelvin Ferguson making precise cuts, a windblown eucalyptus tree more than 100 feet tall is brought down Wednesday afternoon in Piiholo. The tree was leaning and being blown in the opposite direction, over Piiholo Road. The dying tree is one of many lining the road that are scheduled to be brought down. DeCoite, who has also been contracted to remove dead eucalyptus trees in other parts of the island, predicted a rough future for the fast-growing, introduced species known for its hard, dense wood. “The whole island of blue gum is going to die,” he said. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Every winter Sara Tekula is extra cautious as she drives to and from her home along Piiholo Road, fearing that a eucalyptus tree could fall at any time.

“Every winter they are falling on the road,” she said.

All there need to be is some water and winds and the trees could fall, she added.

“My husband and I have been becoming increasingly concerned about those eucalyptus. They are all dying.”

In April, a 70-foot eucalyptus tree came crashing down on a Makawao man’s truck as he was heading home on Piiholo Road. The tree fell just inches away from the cab. Robert Turner, 32, survived and was treated and released from the hospital in one day.

A 120-foot eucalyptus tree dwarfs Land Prep LLC’s Darren DeCoite (near the top of the tree) as he trims its limbs after it was felled in Piiholo on Wednesday afternoon. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

He said the tree was dead and was probably eaten by bugs and beetles. It was also raining heavily in the area when the tree fell.

The county is aware of the dangers as well.

“We’ve been looking at it for a while,” even before the April incident, said Maui County spokesman Rod Antone.

The tree that fell on Turner’s car was on private, not county, property, he said.

But he said the county has found dying or dead eucalyptus trees along its right of way along Piiholo Road.

On Monday, the county began removing them.

The first phase involves removing 20 hazardous eucalyptus trees above the Piiholo Zipline.

The county said the work requires intermittent road closures when work is ongoing from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. The work is expected to be completed Aug. 9.

In total, 112 trees will be removed from the county right of way along Piiholo Road. Subsequent tree removal phases will follow the current project, the county said.

The county’s Public Works and Parks and Recreation departments, including the Maui County Arborist, are coordinating the removals.

Antone said the removal has taken some time because money needed to be found for the work. He did not immediately have funding figures available.

Over the years, Antone has received several calls about dangerous eucalyptus trees falling, but he said that many times private landowners were involved.

“We always have the issue when there is a storm and the winds pick up and these trees come falling down. (But) we can’t go into any forested areas cutting down all the trees we think is a problem,” Antone said.

He has advised neighbors to talk to one another if there is a problem with trees on private property.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife is also aware of the concerns about eucalyptus trees, but officials said the trees the county is removing are not in its forest reserve and are well below forestry lands.

But, in an email, the department said that it understands that people are concerned about trees in its upper areas of the forest reserves.

In general, the Forestry and Wildlife Division conducts “hazard tree assessment” for areas in the forest reserve if there is reason to believe there is a hazard. And, if so, the trees are removed as necessary.

Staff members routinely conduct hazardous tree inspections in the Makawao and Waihou Springs State forest reserves, particularly along all road corridors, designated Na Ala Hele trails and access features, and other high-use areas, the division said.

At any time, if there were a reason to believe that there is an immediate threat to public safety, the state assesses and responds accordingly and appropriately with risk management procedures and removes the trees as necessary.

Donald DeCoite, owner of Land Prep LLC, is assisting with the removal of the initial 20 trees. He said he saw eucalyptus trees in the area inundated with bugs around five years ago.

DeCoite said that, in the past, the blue gum eucalyptus have been mostly affected by bugs, but now he has seen even another type of eucalyptus, the eucalyptus robusta, affected.

At times when the eucalyptus trees are cut, the bugs are “falling like rain out of the trees,” DeCoite said.

The Maui Invasive Species Committee has said eucalyptus trees, which are non-native, are being attacked by insects, such as the eucalyptus tortoise beetle and eucalyptus snout weevil. The committee said the trees are even prone to falling in windstorms when they are healthy.

The state and private landowners have planted the trees for boundary markers, windbreaks and erosion control through the years, the committee has said.

Tekula said that over the 10 years she has lived along Piiholo Road she has known many residents who have been stuck on the road or needed to turn around because of fallen trees. She said residents have also found themselves in the middle of two fallen trees along Piiholo.

“We were really happy to hear (the county) was going to do something about it,” she said, acknowledging that the eucalyptus trees are on public and private property.

Tekula said that, so far, the tree removal work has been going well. Piiholo Road is not closed for an entire day.

But to help residents figure out if the removal work will be blocking the road, a Facebook page has been set up with the help of Tekula and Maui County. Residents have posted updates when they have seen roadwork taking place on Piiholo. The county also posts updates on the site.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.


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