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Students in the Forest TEAM program on an excursion during the Spring 2020 semester.

Founded 20 years ago to cultivate local forestry experts, Forest TEAM program is fulfilling its mission

Anya Tagawa fondly recalls the most thrilling moments of her career in natural resource conservation, like rappelling into lava tubes to access rare plants that had thrived in the shelter of the tube. Or blazing trails and flying by helicopter to far-flung places in Kohala to search for rare plants. 

 “It’s an exciting field,” Tagawa said recently. “It’s been an exciting life, for sure.”

Tagawa’s higher education journey, which prepared her for a successful career in conservation and education, began in Hawai‘i Community College’s Tropical Forest Ecosystem and Agroforestry Management program, which is also known as the Forest TEAM program.

Forest TEAM students learn to manage Hawai‘i’s native forest ecosystems, grow native plants, establish agroforestry operations, and use Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

The Forest TEAM program is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and Tagawa’s education and career highlight the reason Hawai‘i CC established the associate degree program two decades ago.  

Opportunities for Hawai‘i Residents 

Founded by the late Hawai'i CC professor Fred Stone, the Forest TEAM program was created so Hawai'i residents like Tagawa could get the education they need to compete for jobs in the conservation and forestry industries, rather than having all the hires come from outside Hawai'i.

“It was so Hawai'i kids could get these jobs with the forest service and the national park and other organizations, so we could equalize the playing field and local kids could have access to these jobs,” said Orlo Steele, one of two professors who lead the program.  

In the two decades since, that effort has taken root. Steele rattles off a list of graduates who have found careers with government organizations, non-profits, and businesses or started businesses of their own.

Steele said about half of graduates go directly into the workforce after earning their associate of science degrees from the Forest TEAM program and half continue onto bachelor’s and graduate programs.

Forest Solutions, Inc. is a forestry management business that manages 150,000 acres on Hawai‘i Island and has hired several Forest TEAM graduates over the years.

“I really appreciate that the program exists,” said Nicholas Koch, Forest Solutions General Manager and also the Hawaii Forest Industry Association President.

He said “it’s no secret” that having a trained workforce is vital for any industry, and for Forest Solutions, graduates who have training plus knowledge of the local environment are an asset. 

“They’ve walked on lava before. They’re familiar with it and they don’t mind,” he said. “They’re not surprised by the conditions of the land that we have here. They know what guinea grass is all about.”

Growing Up in the Outdoors 

Tagawa was one of those “Hawai'i kids,” the program was designed to benefit, and her upbringing in Kurtistown provided the inspiration to pursue the education and career path she did.

“Both of my parents were avid hunters, so I spent a lot of time in our native forests, and part of why I choose to enroll in the Forest TEAM program and other programs that led me to conservation, was because of these early outdoor experiences, experiences that eventually led me to what I’m doing today,” said Tagawa. “We did a lot of exploring as kids, me and my siblings, and two of us became conservationists, so I think our outdoor lifestyle as children was impactful.”

When Tagawa enrolled at Hawai‘i CC after high school she found a program that was a perfect fit for her. It was more affordable than a four-year university, she found “amazing” supportive faculty, built lifelong friendships, developed connections in the industry, it was close to home and her family, it bolstered her work ethic, and the hands-on experiences in the program gave her an edge when looking for jobs.

It also provided opportunities for leadership that sparked a love of teaching and education. She was the Forest TEAM Club President, and as a student worker, she started and led a program for upcoming high school students.

“Because of that job, I realized I really enjoyed the teaching component,” she said.

She now applies her love of education as the Education Manager at the 'Imiloa Astronomy Center, and before that she was an Outreach and Education Specialist for the Division of Forestry and Wildlife, Natural Area Reserves System.

After graduating from Hawai‘i CC in 2005, she earned her bachelor's degree and then a master’s in Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science (TCBES) from the University of Hawai'i at Hilo.

“Some people say, ‘Oh, you kind of painted yourself into a corner by staying in Hawai‘i and only learning here,’ but it was a really nice corner to paint myself into,” she said.