Public, Private Sectors Join to Save Hawaii's Fragile Ecosystems

State and conservation groups rally to preserve largest concentration of endangered species in US

The Hawaiian Islands, considered by many to be the world's most outstanding living laboratory for the study of evolution and island biology, teeter on the brink of environmental crisis.

Officials of state organizations and private conservation groups say that progress has been made since Hawaii declared a biological emergency three years ago, but the world's constant attention is needed to keep the effort moving forward.

``Because life forms on islands epitomize nature's vulnerability to extinction and are simultaneously attractive to tourists and development, [Hawaii] poses the question as nowhere else,'' says Donald Kennedy, former president of Stanford University, now a biology professor there. ``How much of the first part can you save under pressure from the second?''

The environmental stakes here are hard to overstate.

Home to over 10,000 life forms found nowhere else on Earth, Hawaii also contains the largest concentration of endangered organisms in the United States: the crested honeycreeper, Maui parrotbill, geranium humile, and hibiscuskokio to name but a few. Eleven birds are close to extinction, which accounts for 40 percent of all endangered birds in the US. Hawaii has 35 percent of the country's endangered plants despite having only .2 of 1 percent of the land mass of the US.

``When species disappear, ecosystems deteriorate and human life everywhere suffers,'' says Mark White, director of Maui programs for the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii. ``Loss of species is only an indicator that something very serious is happening to the environment.''

The state's wake-up call came in 1991.

A decade of private, state, and federal efforts culminated in the first comprehensive inventory of plants, animals, fish, and habitat since Hawaii was granted to statehood in 1959. The results were dramatic: Nearly two-thirds of the original forest cover had been lost, including 50 percent of vital rainforests; of 140 listed species of native birds, only 70 remained, of which 33 were endangered; and 37 plant species were listed as endangered, with 152 more to be proposed. The state subsequently declared itself to be in biological emergency.

Three years later, because of partnerships among private entities, public entities, and individual landowners, Hawaii has done much to try to alleviate its problems.

In an unprecedented move to ensure long-term protection of the state's natural environment, the Legislature last year approved $2 million in dedicated funding for two innovative conservation programs that promote such private-public partnerships. Named the Natural Area Partnerships and Forest Stewardship, the programs are heartily backed by 30 organizations as diverse as the Hawaii Visitors' Bureau, the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii, the Hawaii Association of Realtors, and the Hawaii Sugar Planters Association.

``These partnership programs actually save the state money because we don't have to buy land to protect it,'' says Keith Ahue, Director of the Department of Land and Natural Resources. ``By encouraging landowners to manage the lands themselves, we are also getting more people involved in the important job of protecting Hawaii's watersheds and native plants and animals.''

Through the Natural Area Partnership program, the state provides landowners with matching funds ($2 state to $1 private) to manage lands that contain intact native forests and habitat for endangered plants and animals. In return, landowners must permanently dedicate their lands to conservation.

The Forest Stewardship program provides matching funds (up to $1 state to $1 private) to landowners to enhance and restore marginal lands with important natural resources such as nonnative watersheds, patches of native forests, or isolated populations of rare or endangered species. Landowners must make a minimum 10-year commitment to the program.

``The state recognized that the programs had to be sustainable in perpetuity,'' says Maria Naehu, communications manager of the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii. ``If protection efforts were interrupted for just one year due to lack of funding, a decade's worth of work can be completely undone.''

The state commitment, for now, is a matter of law. ``By providing this funding, we are telling landowners that the state is committed to working with them for the long term,'' says Rosalyn Baker (D), majority leader for the Hawaii House of Representives.

Moomomi Beach Preserve, on the island of Molokai, is an area where commitment to conservation is bearing fruit. The preserve protects more than 22 native Hawaiian plant species, four of which are globally rare or endangered. Because of sand mining and urban development, dunes like those of Moomomi are all but destroyed on Hawaii's other seven islands. Efforts by local citizens and landowners to prevent the overharvesting of natural resources here have brought the comeback of the Hawaiian green sea turtles that have been largely extirpated from the islands.

Officials on Molokai are also developing a sustainable-fishing and agriculture industry by renewing once-traditional fish- breeding ponds and subsistence farming based on the taro plant.

In another area of the state, on Maui, the eastern slope of the 10,000-foot Haleakala Crater is a model of successful ecosystem-wide management: the control of feral pigs by hunting, trapping, and fences; the reduction of alien species such as Argentine ants that prey on insects needed to pollinate key plants like the Haleakala silversword; and the hand-removal of weeds such as the Florida blackberry, introduced in the early 1900s. If not checked, this invasive plant can choke out nearly all others while making mountainsides impenetrable.

Projects can be costly. Because of the remoteness of the area, the cost of constructing a half-mile of fencing to isolate burrowing pigs is $60,000. And there can be problems when biologists try to control some bugs and plants by introducing natural predators that then upset the natural balance in unforeseen ways.

Native birds have been hard hit by diseases brought by mosquitoes and other pests in recent years, officials say. Of 20 new alien species that arrive here each year, one is a serious pest. Attempts to halt the flow of new insects, rodents, and plants into Hawaii have been accelerated with new cooperation by dozens of state, local, and federal groups.

One example is the use of terriers at Guam airports to sniff cargo areas of planes for brown snakes and other predators that can wreak havoc once in Hawaii.

But such tactics ``are like bailing the ocean,'' Mr. White says. ``We would like to see as much time, effort, and care put into screening cargo coming into Hawaii as in other states such as California.''

Propagation programs have also been successful in breeding endangered nene (Hawaiian goose) and koloa (Hawaiian duck) as well as captive rearing in zoos and botanical gardens.

Because agriculture depends on healthy forests, officials have also hailed a 1991 agreement signed by six East Maui landowners as a major step in protecting the single largest source of surface water in the state. The agreement provides for the landowners - including the state, Haleakala National Park, and The Nature Conservancy - to coordinate management of more than 100,000 acres of forest along Haleakala Crater's north slopes.

``We have all joined forces to combine energy, money, and people intelligently,'' says Peter Baldwin, president of Haleakala Ranch, a private group party to the agreement. For instance, he says, ``the Nature Conservancy brought what we didn't have, the capability to commit to doing the things that were necessary to control feral animals and exotic plants.'' In all these endeavors, officials note, progress has been made and seeds planted for future success. But funding for such projects is a hurdle.

``Sometimes issues of insects and feral pigs aren't as high profile and media-sexy as the spotted owl controversy or the humpback whale,'' White says. ``Unlike the Pacific Northwest, when we lose native forests here, nobody makes anything out of it because there is no big commercial stake.''

``All that is required not to lose it,'' he continues, ``is a little bit of reasonable money spent for management and consciousness-raising about alien species that will help protect our standard of living and our agriculture as well as native environment.'' Says Professor Kennedy: ``It's more than just a bunch of pretty birds at stake. To understand how evolution works, you need these irreplaceable case studies to unravel the mystery.''

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