This Hawai‘i Island town, on the southern slopes of the Kohala Mountains, has a rich and storied ranching history. Waimea grew up around the sprawling Parker Ranch, one of the first and largest cattle operations in the state. Its ranching heritage is visible pretty much everywhere. Agriculture and Waimea are intrinsically linked.
Zachary Judd, the ranch’s Forestry Manager, has a unique perspective on this linkage. Until a year and a half ago he was a specialist with the DLNR Division of Forestry and Wildlife (DOFAW) Natural Area Reserve system. “I don’t think cattle ranching here and forestry are mutually exclusive at all,” Judd said.
He says Parker Ranch, the town of Waimea, surrounding communities, and other agricultural interests rely heavily on forests and the watersheds in the Kohala Mountains. “As we look forward and continue to develop our in-house forestry program, we are looking at ways to incorporate more forestry across the landscape to benefit our livestock operation, benefit the environment, and provide those critical ecological functions that native forests provide.”
The ranch identified forestry as a strategic priority in 2017 with the hiring of its first forestry manager. “I came on board in 2021 to implement some of the management activities that we’ve been proposing. Parker Ranch has a long history of supporting forestry efforts in Kohala, demonstrated by being one of the first signatories and supporters of the original Kohala Watershed Partnership in 2003,” Judd explained.
The nation’s first forestry agency was created in Hawai‘i. In 1903, agricultural interests successfully advocated for the agency to be established because, even then, they needed forest protection to protect dwindling water supplies
The Kohala Mountain Watershed Partnership, like nine others around the state, has DLNR and private landowners working collaboratively to manage forests for protection of critical watershed resources. As a DOFAW employee, for about a decade, Judd spent countless weeks working in the Kohala Forest Reserve to help maintain the direct link between the health of the forest above Waimea, and water quantity and quality.
The Kohala forests provide all of Waimea’s drinking water and water for the various farming and ranching operations in the area.
Beginning high in the mountains, water for agriculture use is captured by four ditch systems originally built at the start of the 20th century. “The vital nature of watershed protection was recognized by territorial foresters of that era. One of them mentioned that the value of the forests on Kohala Mountain isn’t in timber, where most trees are no taller than a person. The value of it is the water and I agree with that 100%,” Judd added.
Parker Ranch was founded before the development of the irrigation system and was a much different operation than it is today. Spread over 130,000 acres of fee and lease lands across Mauna Kea and Kohala Mountain, the operation knows that having a consistent supply of water is critical to any agriculture operation or expansion. Judd says that’s even more critical now with climate change and weather patterns that are becoming more and more unpredictable.
“Having this water resource is vital to everything we do now and into the future. It’s important that agricultural interests have a seat at the table in protecting the water resources that feed our operations. Having that seat and collaborating with DOFAW and the watershed partnership is vital to us and to our community,” he concluded.
This is the first in a series of monthly releases, illustrating the many partnerships between DLNR and agricultural interests.