By Trina Leberer
If you like to travel off the beaten path and have an affinity for rare places, add the Yela ka forest to your bucket list. Located on the Micronesian island of Kosrae (which is just a speck of dust on a map of the Pacific Ocean), the forest is home to the world’s largest stand of ka trees (Terminalia carolinesis).
My first trip to see these sublime trees was on urgent business: In 2004 the ka forest was threatened by a planned road development that would cut right through the forest. The local landowners, the Alik family, had asked The Nature Conservancy to come assist in exploring conservation options for this unique place.
As our small boat motored slowly through the shady, dense mangroves, the air became stiller and the clouds grew heavy with the promise of rain. The boat came to rest at the edge of the channel and we hopped out onto the muddy ground. We walked a little ways in and then I saw them, the towering ka trees, with their giant buttressed trunks spreading across the forest floor. I stared up at their dense canopies, some up to 80 feet tall.
The magnificent ka forest is the only one of its kind anywhere. But the ka forest is more than just a rare biological area, it is also an important place for people. The forest provides freshwater fish from the Yela River and supports many plants used for traditional medicine. The trunk and immense buttresses of the ka tree were traditionally used to make canoes, and the nuts are an edible treat for children.
A Special Strategy to Protect a Special Tree
It took ten years, but in March 2014 a unique land protection deal was reached that will safeguard 78 acres of the ka forest from encroaching development. We hope this is the first deal of a few to preserve the entire 400 acre ka forest, which is also home to several endemic plant species and the endangered Micronesian pigeon.
The land will be protected by a conservation easement – an agreement that allows landowners to retain title to their land but pays them to give up their right to develop it. The easement will be managed by the Kosrae Island Resource Management Authority (KIRMA) in collaboration with the Yela Environment Landowners Authority (YELA), an organization formed by the Alik family.
While easements are relatively common in the United States, this is the first conservation easement outside of the Americas. It could light a new path toward conservation in places like Micronesia, where traditional usage rights often overlap and land ownership rights are passed down through families for generations. Easements could help maintain that traditional structure while protecting valuable natural areas, stimulating the local economy and allowing for sustainable traditional harvest and use of the natural lands for small-scale ventures such as ecotourism.
Visit Kosrae and See the World’s Last Ka Forest
Kosrae may be far from everywhere—2800 miles southwest of Hawaii, 3500 miles southeast of Hong Kong—but it has an active ecotourism industry. In addition to the ka forest, you can explore magnificent coral reefs, mangrove forests, archeological ruins and cultural sights. Find more information about visiting Kosrae and exploring the beautiful Yela ka forest at the Kosrae Visitors Bureau.
For myself, I recently returned to Kosrae to help celebrate the closing of the deal with the Alik family and our many partners. Visiting the Yela forest again, I felt the same intense feeling of awe wash over me as I gazed up into the sun-dappled canopy. I’m so honored and fortunate to get to work with the people of Kosrae to protect this rare and special place!
Trina Leberer is Micronesia Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. She leads a team of scientists and policy experts working to achieve lasting conversation in the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, Marshall Islands, Northern Mariana Islands and Guam.