Neighbors: Green streak
By the end of today, Joe Imhoff will have planted 144 native trees on Maui – this year.
Since Jan. 1, the Olinda resident has set himself the goal of planting at least one native tree every day. He doesn’t have an end date in mind – he says his project could run for six months or 10 years – but Imhoff hasn’t broken the streak yet.
He says one of the things he likes most about the project is bringing his baby son, Henry, along to help.
“When he’s older,” he says, “he’s going to be able to drive all over Maui and see these trees that we planted together.”
Imhoff didn’t start the project on purpose. On New Year’s Day, he and Henry took down their family’s Christmas tree – a native ohia – and planted it in their yard. Imhoff commemorated the moment with a photo on Facebook.
Then when he showed up at work the next day at Skyline Eco Adventures, Imhoff saw more saplings that were waiting to be planted as part of the company’s effort to reforest its property with native trees. Imhoff put them in the ground, then shared more pictures on the social media site.
“I thought, ‘This is really easy and kind of fun,’ ” he said. “It just turned into a thing: I’m going to plant a tree every day.”
Since then, he’s planted natives across the island, from Kula to Kihei, and from Kahakuloa to Kaupo.
“I always have something to plant,” he says. “If a location pops up in the wet side, I’ll plant a wet tree. I always have a bag of dirt and a shovel in the back of my truck.”
It’s not the first time the Olinda resident has set himself a tree-planting challenge. Three years ago, Imhoff and his wife, Sara Tekula, set off on a mission to plant a tree in every state and record the journey in a documentary.
“We knew we wanted to make our own movie. We liked traveling, and we liked planting trees,” Imhoff said. “We were like, ‘What if we put that all together?’ “
It took three trips to the Mainland to complete their goal of planting trees in all 50 states.
Memorable stops included the Navajo nation, which allowed them to landscape the Four Corners Monument at the point bordering Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. The couple got help from local volunteers who assisted in the planting of mountain mahogany, juniper, pinyon pine, cactus and other indigenous desert trees.
And in Washington state, Imhoff and Tekula were present for the historic removal of a 100-year-old dam, the construction of which had flooded miles of indigenous forest, cut off ancient salmon runs and displaced several Native American tribes. As the waters began to recede, the couple planted the first tree of the reforestation effort.
“It was really inspiring to be part of that whole moment,” he recalls, “because it was about people owning up to the mistakes that were made in the past, and making them right.”
The couple are now in the process of editing their film, with the hope of completing the documentary by the end of this year.
Imhoff didn’t start out as an environmentalist. As a young man, he was “a long-haired guy who listened to way too much heavy metal music,” he says. “I was never a tree hugger or a hippie or anything like that.”
He was moved after hearing talks by local conservationists including Randy Bartlett and Art Medeiros, who discussed the importance of native forests to preserving the watershed. He was amazed by the success of reforestation and fencing efforts aimed at bringing back native forests, but thought the projects were “not enough.”
“Every person needs to be participating in watershed restoration, and that can happen in everybody’s backyard,” he says.
Imhoff poured that newfound passion into a job as Skyline’s outreach coordinator, heading up the company’s reforestation program. He was also recently selected by the Hawaii Ecotourism Association as the Maui ecotour guide of the year.
While it’s sometimes been challenging to find the time, space and resources to plant a tree every day, Imhoff says it’s all been worth it.
“My parents taught me as a kid that it’s important to leave the place that you’re at in a better way than you found it,” he says, “and that’s something I’m trying to instill in my son.”
* Ilima Loomis is a Maui-based writer and editor. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at email@example.com. “Neighbors” and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.