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Nonprofit “connects the dots” to help make trees a growing part of Hawaii’s future

A small but growing nonprofit with a vision as straightforward as its name is working to take advantage of one of our most precious assets — our trees.

Trees for Honolulu’s Future has found its niche in a broad and diverse community of individuals, academics, government officials and other organizations with the shared purpose of planting and maintaining trees to combat the effects of climate change. Its niche is “connecting the dots” — bringing these sectors together to turn plans, promises and proclamations into reality.

Why all this interest in planting trees? Here’s a simplified reason:

As we learned in elementary school, animals, including humans, breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. Plants do the opposite, taking in carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. It has proven to be a wonderful complementary system for millions of years as trees became giant storage tanks for the carbon they take in. The scientific term is carbon sequestration.

However, over the centuries, we have treated trees as crops, chopping them down for fuel, construction materials, and even to improve our views. At the same time we have relied on fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas to power our societies, sending carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere instead of storing them underground. The resulting changes in the earth’s climates have produced higher temperatures and effects such as drought, heat waves, wildfires, storms and flooding.

Because of its geographic isolation, Hawaii is among the most dependent places on earth for fossil fuels, especially oil that arrives in a parade of giant tanker ships.

That is beginning to change as we turn to alternative energy sources such as solar and wind. The state has mandated that we become totally free of fossil fuels by 2045. California, New Mexico and Washington State have followed our lead, using similar time frames.

Trees can be part of the plan.

The concept of planting trees to help the environment is not new. Kupu, a nonprofit that works with troubled youth, has planted approximately a million trees throughout Hawaii in the past 12 years. Numerous nonprofits are planting trees to restore fragile lands. Dr. Camilo Mora, an associate professor of geography in the University of Hawaii at Manoa College of Social Sciences, has become a leading advocate for tree plantings through his Carbon Neutrality Challenge and with volunteer help has planted thousands of trees. Private citizens and business owners plant trees and plants to beautify their properties.

Yet we’re falling behind. Smart Trees Pacific estimates that Oahu lost more than 76,000 trees between 2010 and 2013. Many have been vandalized, others have been uprooted by developers and by property owners seeking better ocean views. A fungus disease that has killed millions of ohia trees on the Big Island has been discovered on Oahu, endangering even more trees.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced in 2018 the goal of planting 100,000 trees by 2025 and the City Council has set a goal of increasing Oahu’s urban tree canopy from 22% to 35% by 2035. Mora says that’s not fast enough to overcome the effects of climate change; he’s calling for the planting of tens of thousands of trees in the next two years and a million trees a year beginning in 2021. To that end, he has been frustrated by bureaucratic red tape that has delayed some of his plans.

“There are too many heads and not enough legs,” Mora says.

That’s where Trees for Honolulu’s Future comes in, says Dan Dinell, its executive director and president. The nonprofit is “connecting the dots” by bringing together various parties such as the City and County of Honolulu, the Mayor’s Office, the Honolulu Division of Urban Forestry, the National Park Service, Smart Trees Pacific, and EnVision Kaimuki, an offshoot of the Kaimuki Neighborhood Board.

It also is helping to educate Hawaii’s keiki on the benefits of trees beyond their beauty. For example, Trees for Honolulu’s Future and Hawaii Theatre for Youth are collaborating on a play about trees that will be seen by thousands of Hawaii students in an upcoming season.

Trees for Honolulu’s Future traces its beginnings to Dan Dinell’s father, Tom, emeritus professor of urban and regional planning at UH Manoa, who has been campaigning to make Honolulu an age-friendlier city — we have one of the nation’s fastest-growing aging populations. Tom wrote an op-ed column in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser a few years ago about the cooling effect that trees have on neighborhoods, and the response he received prompted him to form Trees for Honolulu’s Future in February 2017.

The nonprofit operated without a staff for about two years until Tom’s son, Dan, stepped in, working pro bono first as executive director and then as president. He brings strong and varied experience in both the private and public sectors to the job. He was vice president of strategic planning for Hilton Hotels Worldwide, executive director of the Hawaii Community Development Authority and president of Hawaii Coffee Company.

“I was available and I have a skill set to start a business, keep it going, and make the place better,” he says, describing his decision to move into the nonprofit sector.

Trees for Honolulu’s Future operates on a small budget and in donated space in the Outdoor Circle’s offices on South King Street. “We’re punching above our weight,” Dinell says of the current situation. But it has an active 13-member board, a prestigious 24-member advisory board, a commitment to increase its funding through grants and donations, and plans to hire a paid staff.

“This is an organization that has a plan and knows where it wants to go,” Dinell told me. “We don’t want to lunge from grant to grant.”

Trees for Honolulu’s Future is currently working with the grassroots group EnVision Kaimuki and other organizations on a project called Trees for Kaimuki, which involves planting trees on city-owned land. Dinell says Kaimuki is an ideal place to show how trees can enhance a neighborhood.

“First, it has a group (EnVision Kaimuki) ready, willing and able to begin,” he says. “Second, it enables us to concentrate on a single geographic area. Third, it has both businesses and residences. Finally, it can serve as a test site for others to emulate.”

The city has promised financial support for Trees for Kaimuki and plans are progressing on choosing the right kinds of trees for the right locations. One goal is to double the area’s canopy percentage, currently estimated at 17%.

I asked Dinell what he has learned in his first nine months on the job.

“I’ve learned a lot about trees,” he said. “I’m still struggling with the species.”

Contact Dan Dinell at ddinell@treesforhonolulu.org.

In this monthly feature, former newspaper editor and columnist Jim George visits with organizations that make up Hawaii’s not-for-profit community. He can be reached at jamesrgeorge@hawaii.rr.com.

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