A pilot reforestation project with big hopes is taking place in Leeward Oahu.
Groups of Oahu public school students are trying to grow Native Hawaiian trees on a Makakilo mountainside, which has been decimated by years of cattle grazing and wildfires.
At Camp Palehua in the Waianae mountains, Pauline Sato guides her group of Leeward Oahu high school students. The students are experimenting and doing it by hand, one sapling at a time.
The students are conducting an experiment, hoping to turn back time, which has not been kind to the mountain.
"You come in and you see all these invasive trees and you see all of this dry dirt and it's not the prettiest sight," said Kapolei High School student Audrey Salazar.
Native species on the mountainside are now all but gone. And the trees that were planted decades ago to hold the soil in place are mostly foreign.
"This is important to do because if you look around us, most of these trees are not native and we need to combat erosion with native trees," said Blaze Brooks, a student at Kapolei High School.
The project is part of a partnership between Camp Palehua and the Malama Learning Center. The students use different planting techniques to see how much water the keiki native trees need to grow. The native trees they're planting include a'a'lii, lonomea, and wili wili.
"We know how to plant trees but how do we make them survive or help them survive in the long term without watering them everyday?" said Pauline Sato, executive director of the Malama Learning Center.
The Gill family — the sons of the late Lt. Governor Tom Gill — acquired the land with a goal to re-plant the mountain using native species.
"So that's what were trying to do — protect it, transform it, get it back to its natural state for as much as we possibly can," said Michael Hayes, director of Camp Palehua.
The 17 students participating this week are on fall break.
They stay overnight at the facility that was once known as Camp Timberline.
And the work is not easy.
"At the end of the day I feel a little proud of myself because I pushed myself out of my comfort zone." said Kathleen Francisco, a senior at Waipahu High School.
And over the next several years, more than 250 students from public schools across the island, but primarily from public schools between Waipahu and Waianae, will take part in the reforestation program.
"It's a huge job and we're not kidding ourselves," Sato said. "We're going to look at this from a broad perspective. And it's a multi-year, not just one semester we'll figure it out."