UH Hilo biologists contribute expertise to native forest restoration bill

The researchers credit collaboration between the university, the federal forest service, the county, and an independent lawyer with the success of Bill 178, meant to create two additional native forest dedications, including a tax incentive for property owners in Hawai‘i county.

By Susan Enright

Kanawao (Hydrangea arguta)
Kanawao (Hydrangea arguta), one of the many plants cataloged by UH Hilo graduate student Sebastian Wells in a list of native and non-native plant species that can be used to maximize the success of native forest restoration projects based on elevation and rates of precipitation. Kanawao is Hawaiʻi’s endemic hydrangea and is most commonly found in montane wet forests throughout the Hawaiian islands from 1,000 to 7,000 feet in elevation. This species has adapted to low light conditions as it grows in the understory of many native forests and does best when it is planted in a location where it receives partial sunlight in moist, well-drained soils. Photo credit: Sebastian Wells.
Rebecca Ostertag
Rebecca Ostertag

Research at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo on hybrid forest ecosystems is directly behind the creation of a bill currently under consideration at the Hawai‘i County Council. Bill 178 is an amendment to the current Hawaiʻi County Property Tax Code. Under the proposed property tax amendments, Bill 178 would create two additional native forest dedications: 1) a functional forest and 2) a successional forest land-use dedication. These changes would allow private landowners to receive reduced property tax rates for native forest restoration on Hawaiʻi Island, and promote the islandwide engagement of preserving native forests.

The bill has passed two hearings unanimously with the next scheduled for Aug. 5. If it passes the next hearing and is approved by Mayor Harry Kim, it will become law.

  • Update: At the Aug. 5 hearing, the Hawai‘i County Council unanimously approved the bill. It now goes to mayor for signature.
  • Update: The mayor signed the bill into law on Aug. 17, 2020.

Forest ecosystems expert Rebecca Ostertag, a professor of biology and associate program chair of the Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science (TCBES) graduate program at UH Hilo, and her colleague Susan Cordell of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, are working directly with environmental lawyer Leslie Cole-Brooks, who wrote the bill.

Sebastian Wells
Sebastian Wells

In addition, UH Hilo student Sebastian Wells, in the professional internship track of the TCBES graduate program and advised by internship coordinator Lisa Canale, is working as an intern this summer with the County of Hawaiʻi Real Property Tax Office under the guidance of Lisa Miura, division head administrator at the tax office. Among his many duties, Wells is developing communication tools for the public and training county employees in evaluating forest management plans.

“My role as an intern is to develop documents that would support the implementation of the proposed legislation as it will help streamline the process for the county, helping them to effectively and efficiently evaluate forestry management plans while also providing landowners with the tools they need in order to maximize the success of their native forest restoration endeavors,” Wells says.


Ostertag explains that about two years ago, she and Cordell were contacted by the County of Hawai‘i to give a presentation to a working group convened to analyze the current property tax programs related to agriculture and to propose suggestions to the county council for change. A subset of the agricultural programs is a Native Forest Program that is intended to promote open space and the persistence of native plants.

“We did our presentation in October 2018,” says Ostertag. “We talked about our research on the Liko Nā Pilina project, which is developing a new restoration technique using native and non-native, non-invasive species in combination to keep out the highly invasive plants.”

In May 2019, the two forest advocates were contacted by environmental lawyer Cole-Brooks, who heard about Ostertag and Cordell’s research through a member of the county council. Discussions took place about rewriting the county code to allow for a cheaper tax rate, an incentive, for doing restoration and to add this incentive to the native forest dedication already on the books, in which there was no direct credit for restoration.

“We added categories for doing native forest restoration, functional forest restoration—an outgrowth of our years working in Liko Nā Pilina—and successional forest restoration,” explains Ostertag. “We spent a whole year developing this and Leslie did the legwork of writing the code and doing outreach to a lot of people.”

Ostertag then recruited graduate student Wells to work on the project. Among other work, Wells is helping the tax office with communicating about the program to the public, making species lists, developing guidelines for the forest management plans that owners need to write and how the county can evaluate the plans.

Collaboration and Applied Learning

Ostertag credits the collaboration between the university, the U. S. Forest Service, the county, and the independent lawyer with the success of the bill.

“It’s super exciting that the bill is based on years of research, and how that basic research expanded and blossomed into policy and training applications.”

That training can be seen most clearly in the work of graduate student Wells. Among his many duties in regard to Bill 178, he is working on the following:

  • Creating digital habitat suitability maps with a Geographic Information System (GIS) that will show the ranges and types of native plants that can be used for forest restoration efforts throughout Hawaiʻi county
  • A corresponding list of native and non-native non-invasive plant species that can be used to maximize the success of native forest restoration projects based on elevation and rates of precipitation
  • Developing an evaluation criterion that the county can use to track private landowners progress
  • The development of guidelines for forestry and natural resource management professionals to use to write native forest assessment reports and whether or not landowners are adhering to the guidelines for native forest dedication
  • Quantifying the economic value of native forests based on the ecosystem services they provide the residents of Hawaiʻi county
  • Upon completion, train staff at the Hawaiʻi County Real Property Tax Division how to use these documents

“So far I have completed the plant species list and the annotated bibliography quantifying the economic value of native forests and am now starting to work on forestry management plans that will be used by the county and the property owners who are interested in dedicating their land to one of three native forest dedications outlined in Bill 178,” Wells explains. “I have also submitted verbal and written testimony in support of Bill 178 during the last two hearings on July 7th and July 22nd, and I also plan on submitting another round of verbal and written testimony during the last hearing on August 5th.”


Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.

Update Sept. 8, 2020: Interview with ThinkTech Hawaii, featuring Leslie Cole Brooks, Rebecca Ostertag, and Susan Cordell. Host is Jay Fidell. 

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