Smart planning can help save endangered species
MORE than a year ago, another Hawaiian species went extinct. Although it was just one of more than 1,000 native species known to have disappeared forever, the death of the last po'uli bird prompted Governor Lingle to present a challenge: Hawaii needs a better plan for its endangered species.
Yet since then, little has happened. Our system of species protection has many problems, and we aren't solving them. I'm proposing three steps to restore endangered species: First, Hawaii needs to petition the federal government for more state-based power in wildlife conservation. Second, conservation needs a list of clear goals to measure its progress. The third step is to allocate more money to the Conservation Special Fund, which the state uses to purchase important habitats.
We need more state-based power because the current system -- the federal Endangered Species Act -- is notoriously ineffective. The act gives little instruction on how to define a species as "recovered," so many will remain on the endangered list indefinitely. There also is terrible allocation of funds in the act.
Because of this confusion and inequity, the ESA is in a constant state of crisis. Habitats are lost and species are pushed to the brink of extinction until they are saved in a last-ditch effort. This worked for the nene goose, but it failed for the po'uli. Each state knows its own needs best, and if states had more control over their species management, they could respond sooner and take more preventive action.
If Hawaii did have a self-run endangered species program, it could become just as ineffective as ESA if it did not have clear goals. One attempt to improve species management in the islands suffered from just that. Under the supervision of Chairman Peter Young, Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources completed a federal program called the Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy. The idea behind the CWCS was to catalog the most crucial species to protect and the methods to do this. Unfortunately, the department informally decided to define every single native species -- numbering more than 6,000 -- as "of greatest conservation need." In effect, this 734-page report overwhelms any proposed action with the sheer magnitude of Hawaii's entire complex ecosystem.
Even if action is proposed, there is no way of telling how effective it is. The density of the CWCS makes it impossible to decide where to start, and it supports only existing plans: in other words, no change. This is not good enough. We need clear, attainable goals with numbers and dates, such as "This many nene living in their native habitat by 2012." Ecology is obviously more complicated than this, but without agreement there will be no progress.
Like everything in Hawaii, a statewide conservation program will take money. However, the money is here -- we're just not spending it well. The CWCS could have brought useful funding, as it gave Hawaii access to an $80 million national wildlife fund. Yet the department is not spending this new money to protect endangered species. A month after publishing the report, Young announced a $15 million increase in the DLNR budget. At the top of the department's list is $1 million to establish Environmental Education Centers statewide, along with another million to beef up security at state parks and give the parks' bathrooms a monthly power wash. While these improve the surface experience for Hawaii park-goers, we are ignoring ecological problems just because they are invisible to the taxpayer's eye. The most effective way to spend this money is to add it to the Conservation Special Fund, which the state uses to purchase habitat areas.
According to DLNR itself, the greatest cause of extinction in Hawaii is habitat loss. Wouldn't it make sense to make habitat conservation priority No. 1?
Hawaii needs to petition the federal government for more independent power in species management. We can use a new plan, one that is a balance between the ineffective Endangered Species Act and the overwhelming CWCS. With clear goals for recovery and plans to accomplish those goals, Hawaii can take more species off the endangered list. I hope this happens soon, because there is another way that Hawaiian species can fall off the list: extinction.
Chris Chapman, a native of Hawaii, is a biology student at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif.