Sunday, February 24, 2002


The sand dunes at Kaena Point, above, are beginning to stabilize after years of abuse by recreational vehicles. Paths lined with rocks help keep foot traffic out of fragile reserve areas designated for birds and plants. Below, sharply silhouetted on the north shore of Kaena Point is leina a ka'uhane, the "leaping place of souls," where some believed spirits of recently dead Hawaiians can be united with their ancestors.

Kaena Point

Path to recovery

Tips for visiting

By Diana Leone

Naturalist-at-large Betsy Gagne was beside herself.

On a recent trip to Kaena Point State Natural Area Reserve, she counted 32 Laysan albatross -- the most she's ever seen there -- happily nesting among the gentle dunes of this windy, westernmost part of Oahu.

The striking black-and-white birds craned their graceful necks to gaze back at Gagne and her small group of hikers.

"Hello. Hello. How are you?" she spoke to them, bobbing and weaving her head slightly to mimic their movements.

Over her nine years working for the Natural Area Reserves System, Gagne has participated in a re-creation of Kaena Point as the wild place it once was.

Before the state designated these 43 acres at the tip of Kaena Point as one of its 19 Natural Area Reserves in 1983, the place was a favorite spot for dune buggies, four-wheelers and dirt bikes. For decades, people mercilessly drove their sport vehicles over the dunes, killing native plants and scaring away birds that would otherwise like to nest there.

A pair of moli, or Laysan albatross, keep a watchful eye on their chick.

"I used to come here and see the albatross fly over, checking it out," Gagne said.

But they couldn't stay. Not with that racket. Not with the free-roaming dogs that would plunder their nests and eat their eggs and chicks.

"Oh, this is job satisfaction," Gagne enthused a short while later, bending over healthy patches of ilima papa (Sida fallax), the native plant whose delicate golden flowers are a traditional symbol of Oahu.

Nearby, the endangered ohai, which until recently was almost wiped out on the point, peeked its salmon-red flowers from beneath silvery leaves. Downwind of the mature bushes were dozens of seedlings, which sent Gagne into near ecstasy.

"This is recovery," she breathed, as all around her the loudest sound was the crashing together of waves from the Mokuleia and Waianae sides of the island as they meet at the rocky promontory.

Then she points to sea, where a humpback whale spouts just hundreds of yards away.

Gagne didn't have anything to do with the return of the humpbacks.

But for recent years' proliferation of Laysan albatross (moli), of wedge-tailed shearwaters (uau kani) and of key native plant species in this special place, she can take some credit.

She spreads the kudos around -- to hardworking predecessors and coworkers with the state's Natural Area Reserve System and to volunteers from the Sierra Club, Audubon Society and other groups that donate countless hours performing unsexy jobs like weed-pulling.

Betsy Gagne, above, from the Department of Land and Natural Resources, inspected the carcass of a young green sea turtle washed ashore recently at Kaena Point.

Her boss, Randy Kennedy, calls her the "the heart and soul and the cheerleader" of the system.

"She's always supporting the work we do on the ground," Kennedy said, which basically means getting out the unwanted species of plants and animals to give the natives a chance to reclaim their territory.

Sometimes the best way to eradicate unwanted plants is to return after every rain and hand-pull the new plants, Gagne said. It's slow, but eventually it works. Many of the deeply rutted paths of motorbikes are now overgrown with flower-speckled carpets of native plants.

"I can definitely see a change," said Waialae Nui resident Joyce Sweeney on a recent hike there with out-of-town guests. "All the native plants have really come back. It's looking good."

Her guest Debra Nassi of Sacramento, Calif., remarked that it was hard to believe there are a million people on Oahu when standing at this isolated spot. It is the most likely area on Oahu to spot an endangered monk seal and is also a good sea turtle-watching area.

"The goal for Natural Area Reserves is to make it like it was pre-Polynesian contact," Gagne said. "It's like a time machine. But it's really hard to turn back the hands of time."

The 109,000 acres of Natural Area Reserves are the most protected of a total of 800,000 acres of Division of Forestry and Wildlife lands.

Pau-o-Hiiaka creeps along the lava rocks at the Kaena Point coast. The low-growing vine helps stabilize sand dunes and is associated in Hawaiian folklore to Pele and her sister, Hiiaka. It is said that Pele created the plant to protect Hiiaka from the sun as she napped on the beach.

They were selected by experts in the 1970s and '80s to preserve different ecosystems of the islands as nearly as possible as they would have been before human contact.

The Natural Area Reserves program employs 27 with state funds and 15 more with federal grants. Its annual state budget is $1.15 million, Kennedy said, with a half-million more in federal grants -- and more federal dollars coming in the next few years.

Yet the system is cheap as such protected lands go. It spends about $11 a managed acre per year, Kennedy said, while comparable areas of National Parks and U.S. Fish & Wildlife preserves cost in the $40- to $50-an-acre range, and military wildlife preservation areas typically spend much more.

In contrast to Kaena Point, which receives more than 50,000 visitors a year, "the bulk of the (state's Natural Area) Reserves are remote with limited access," Gagne said. "They're not designed for recreation. They're for making sure there's enough (native life) left to populate Loihi (the volcanic seamount forming off the Big Island)."

Sometimes, environmentalists try to argue for the preservation of rare plants and animals as being the potential source of cures for deadly diseases.

Gagne doesn't require that human connection.

"Does it really have to 'mean' something or save humanity to be worth saving?" she asked. "How about just because it was here before we came here?"

She said, "To me, every time a species goes extinct it pulls us all a little closer to the edge."



Tips for visiting Kaena Point
Natural Area Reserve

>> Get a brochure on the plants, birds and animals found there at the Department of Land and Natural Resources Forestry and Wildlife office, Room 325 in the Kalanimoku Building, 1151 Punchbowl St.

>> Allow ample time to walk to and from the point. This could take one to three hours, depending on your walking speed.

>> Wear sturdy shoes -- tennis shoes or light hiking books-- not slippers or sandals.

>> Take plenty of water and a snack. The area is usually hot and dry.

>> Stay on the marked paths, to protect the plants and animals.

>> Binoculars can enhance your enjoyment of the birds and animals you see, bringing them closer without scaring them.

>> Don't forget your camera.

>> Stay out of the water when there is high surf unless you are familiar with the area.

>> Don't leave any trash and don't take any plants or rocks.

>> Don't bring your dog.

>> Do bring some heavy-duty, sealable plastic bags lined with newspaper or old cloth, if you want to carry out some of the broken glass that remains scattered on the far end of the point.

A brief description of Hawaii Natural Area Reserves can be found at

For information about visiting Natural Area Reserves or volunteering to help them, contact Betsy Harrison Gagne at 587-0063 or

E-mail to City Desk


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