Last September, an assortment of botanists, nature enthusiasts, and students of HBA’s National Honor Society gathered in Pia Valley in East Oahu with one goal in mind: help restore the Pia Valley to its purest, natural state. Under the guidance of Protect & Preserve Hawaii, a local non-profit, the group of volunteers would hike into the valley to remove invasive plant species and plant native ones in their place.

Volunteers watch and learn how to dig out invasive plants and to plant native grass in its place. Photograph by Brendan Aoki (’24).

Founded in 2019 by Tyrone Montayre, Protect & Preserve Hawaii seeks to “give back to the land and raise awareness through education in [the] community.” Inspired by the loss of his mother, Montayre went looking for a larger purpose in life and decided to buy a 330-acre parcel of land in Pia Valley that was zoned for preservation. While walking through his newly-purchased property, he fell in love with the natural ecosystem. He also learned from passionate conservationists about the need to restore the valley. Montayre soon realized that he had found his calling and started Protect & Preserve to fulfill his mission.

The view, looking south over the Hawai’i Kai area, from the upper portion of Pia Valley. Photograph by Brendan Aoki (’24).
A volunteer pauses during a hike up the Pia Valley ridge to take a photo of a plant. In the distance on the left is Koko Crater. Photograph by Brendan Aoki (’24).

As with every project day at Protect & Preserve, this volunteer gathering in September began with a personal introduction of everyone present, an oli (a Hawaiian chant) to ask for wisdom and guidance), and some teaching from the project leaders on the ecosystem in Pia Valley. Ty Koch and Hannah Cheng, both seniors, were among the NHS students present on behalf of the club’s Environmental Committee. On this outing, a member of the Birds Not Mosquitos multi-agency partnership shared about how disease-bearing mosquitoes are the leading factor in native bird extinction in Hawaii. Koch recalled, “The representative talked about how climate change with hotter temperatures over time leads to a population increase in mosquitoes in higher elevations where they did not used to live.” According to the Birds Not Mosquito website, “Twenty-three species of honeycreepers have gone extinct in Hawaiʻi since the first arrival of mosquitoes in the early 1800s, with many extinctions linked to avian malaria and pox. Most of Hawai‘i’s remaining native honeycreepers are now found only at high elevations where it is too cold for the southern house mosquitoes and the avian malaria parasite.”

Along the hike to the project site, the group pauses to examine and learn about some plants they are seeing along the way. Photograph by Brendan Aoki (’24).

When it came time to put their hands to work, everyone grabbed buckets, sickles, and shovels, and donned protective gloves. Cheng explained how the group dug and pulled out invasive plants, especially guinea grass root balls, and then planted a type of native grass that would help with soil stability and help to restore the native greenery in the area. Other invasive plants in Pia Valley that have choked out native plants include the haole koa tree and strawberry guava.

Illustrations by Taylor Malinger (’24)

When asked about her takeaways from the project, Cheng said, “Attending the project with P&P Hawaii stood out to me because I learned about a community I didn’t know about before. P&P Hawaii taught us about the island and issues that are currently happening and how they are being addressed. I also learned about how much work goes into the restoration process on the island. It was definitely a lot of hard work to remove invasive species and plant more of the native species.”

Come another weekend, another group of volunteers will gather at Pia Valley to tackle another area that needs to be restored. It’s a slow process—weeding, planting and watching nature take its course—but according to Montayre over 2,000 native plantings and 1.5 acres of invasive plants have been cleared so far.

HBA’s NHS volunteers wait for instruction on the project that day. On the far right are rock walls built by volunteers using the uhau humu pōhaku (dry stack rock weaving) method used traditionally by Hawaiians, which is a way of building walls without mortar. The rock wall is part of Protect & Preserve’s efforts to engage in not just biological restoration but also cultural restoration. Photograph by Brendan Aoki (’24).