An organization on Hawaii Island is doing its part to help mitigate climate change through reforestation around the globe.
Terraformation was founded in 2017 by Yishan Wong, ex-CEO of Reddit, when he began evaluating large-scale climate solutions faced with mounting evidence that global climate change was rapidly accelerating. His goal was to find a plan that was practical, affordable, and offered the best possible chance to not just mitigate, but comprehensively solve, climate change.
In 2019, Yishan established Terraformation’s first pilot restoration site, Pacific Flight, on 45 acres off Akoni Pule Highway in North Kohala. Two centuries of unsustainable logging had destroyed the area’s native tropical sandalwood forest, and subsequent cattle grazing had denuded and desertified the land.
The arid environment, high winds, and degraded soils meant that if a team could restore a forest there, they could do it anywhere.
In the summer of 2019, Yishan’s team completed construction of the world’s largest fully off-grid, 100% solar-powered desalination system to supply sustainable freshwater to Pacific Flight. The system produces 34,000 gallons of water per day, enough to support several thousand trees.
Soon after, Yishan partnered with Jill Wagner, director of the Hawaii Island Seed Bank, and a lifelong horticulturist and now Terraformation’s Head of Forestry, to reintroduce native plants at Pacific Flight.
“In six months we have planted over 3,000 plants,” Wagner said. “Terraformation is a forest accelerator. What we do is help projects all over the world to scale. This is the decade of restoration, the time to do it before climate change continues to get more drastic. We really believe natural carbon capture is the most simple way to do carbon sequestration. The thing about this project is it is such a hard site to plant in. There’s nothing there. It’s all desert. It’s a good example that if we can do it there, people can do it in other places.”
Irrigated by the desalinated freshwater, the young native trees were finally able to re-establish themselves in a region that had grown inhospitable over the past 200 years.
Wagner said the dominant species there is the koaia (Acacia koaia), the closest cousin to koa that grows in the Kohala Mountain region.
“Back in the day that was also a sandalwood forest, and we will initiate that also,” she said. “There are big challenges at this site and one of them is the wind. When you have an area that is totally denuded, there is nothing to stop the wind. You get a lot of dust and top soil loss. We are working on getting a lot of shrubs like a‘ali‘i so we can build an ecosystem.”
Besides the North Kohala project, Terraformation has three other sites it is working: 45 acres in North Kona, 175 acres in Waimea and 50 acres in Hilo. It is currently focusing on North Kona where about 500 plants are inthe ground, but in about a month, they will move to the Waimea site.
The advantage to the other sites is there is no need for irrigation like there is in North Kohala.
“We have backup if we need it but we are timing it with the rainy season,” she said.
All of the lands are privately owned, but Terraformation would like to establish a private/public partnership with the Department of Land and Natural Resources to plant on state land. So far, talks with the state have netted no results.
Terraformation would so like to partner with other landowners who would like to establish reforestation on their property.
Terraformation has a memoranda of agreement with the land owners, similar to a lease.
“We manage those projects for the landowner who wants to do forest restoration and we are giving them a wonderful gift because they will end up with a restored forest,” Wagner said.
In addition to the projects on Hawaii Island, Terraformation has partnered with individuals and organizations around the world who share their vision.
“We have a lot of partners worldwide from Uganda, Tanzania, Ukraine, Ecuador, and about 20 others in the pipeline,” she said.
On Thursday, Mayor Mitch Roth’s Earth Day proclamation in part stated “Terraformation, through its restoration site located on Hawaii Island, is working to solve climate change by global native forest restoration, scaling natural carbon capture by solving the biggest bottlenecks to forest restoration, and accelerating global progress toward climate change solutions.”
“We want to help people all over the world with reforestation,” Wagner said.