What most people don’t picture themselves doing is getting lost deep inside a humid jungle, layered head-to-toe in long-sleeve Merino wool, as they lug fifty pounds of equipment up steep hillsides. They don’t imagine themselves spending the majority of their waking hours hacking away at tree trucks with giant machetes—their bodies sweat-drenched, physically exhausted, and ready for bed—only to get up and do it all over again the very next day.
So how the heck did two Smartwool employees find ourselves here?
We have always been adventurers, travelers, movers and shakers. This is why we work for Smartwool. We believe in what our brand stands for: going far and feeling good doing it. It was this mentality that led us towards the Kōkeʻe Resource Conservation Program (KRCP), on the small jungle island of Kauai, Hawaii. We wanted to trade our comfortable knowledge of the high alpine Rocky Mountains, where Smartwool is headquartered, for the humid tropical ecosystems and volcanic rock landscapes unique to Hawaii—where we could learn and grow and give back.
All employees at Smartwool are encouraged to volunteer a full week of work (40 hours) towards community and conservation programs that impact and inspire us. This benefit allows us to get outside into the outdoor spaces that we treasure and give back to the community that supports us.
As outdoor enthusiasts, we viewed this as an opportunity to learn about critical issues that affect different environments. As travelers, we wanted to impact our global community and link ourselves to values that impact the common good. And as adventurers, we wanted to embrace the chance to be part of something totally outside of our normal routines. KRCP allowed us to do all three.
KRCP focuses on preserving and protecting Kauai’s natural biodiversity primarily through invasive plant removal. The best way to do this is by hiking into overgrown areas within the jungle and removing each plant one by one. Every single invasive plant is touched, tracked and cleared by a member of KRCP or one of their volunteers. Considering they’ve been doing it every single day since the program started back in 1998, that means KRCP has had a major impact on Kauai’s biodiversity. They play a huge role in maintaining the very lush look and feel of the island’s plant life.
During our volunteer week, we focused on clearing three main invasives threatening the forests of Kauai: the fast-growing Himalayan Ginger, the prickly Florida blackberry, and the ever-resilient Strawberry Guava. These species were originally introduced to the island for agriculture and decoration, but unfortunately turned into huge threats for the native plants.
The invasives grow at a much faster rate than the natives, which prevents natives from having the critical ground space, light and resources needed to survive. When sections of the forest floor become overwhelmed and overtaken by these invasives, it can adversely force the native species into extinction. This has unfortunately been the case for many plants once found only on Kauai.
A little recognized problem, Hawaii actually contains 33% of all endangered plant species in the U.S. (yet only receives 5% of federal funding allotted for endangered species protection). For over twenty years, KRCP has been a prominent figure keeping many of these species from going extinct, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. The use of volunteers is absolutely critical to help KRCP in their mission to protect Kauai’s natural biodiversity and keep these species alive.
The proof is in the numbers. Since the program’s inception, KRCP has had the help from over 31,000 volunteers, and has managed to remove over 12 million invasives from Kauai’s native forests. That’s a lot of plants.
We started our volunteer week struggling to see how these beautiful, delicious plants could be so damaging—unable to differentiate the red, silky smooth Guava tree trunks from their surroundings. We ended our volunteer week overwhelmed with the scale that the Himalayan Ginger, Strawberry Guava, and Florida Blackberry still cover across the entire island despite KRCP’s continued efforts.
On our hikes, after our volunteer experience, we found ourselves sharing what we had learned with other travelers, teaching them what to look for and sharing knowledge about these issues, so they too could understand the need for native plant preservation in Kauai.
The more we share our story about our volunteer experience, the more we can spread KRCP’s mission globally about the need to maintain Kauai’s natural biodiversity. We knew going into our week with the program that we were going to learn more about the world around us. What we didn’t prepare for is how much we would be truly enriched, inspired, and impacted by our volunteer experience. So much so, that we’ve already started planning for next year’s trip.
To learn more about KRCP or to volunteer yourself, visit KRCP’s website.
Alicia, Art Director, and Cecilia, Executive Assistant, are a couple of adventure-seeking Smartwooligans. We love their off-the-beaten-path experience volunteering in Hawaii. They arrived to learn about local flora and remove invasive plants. They left with a new perspective on what it takes to maintain and care for a tropical paradise.