Photos by Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin

Kaena Comeback - Kaena Point - one of Oahu's last great coastal wild lands - is healing after years of decline. The comeback is a success story in the state's effort to save its natural gems.

By Joan Conrow

CLOUD forests, coastal dunes, lava tube caves, alpine deserts.

These are what state land board Chairman Mike Wilson calls "the priceless jewels," gems in the crown of Hawaii's splendid natural world.

They are precious because they are rare, remnant pockets of intact native ecosystems, snatches of landscape that hark back thousands of years.

These lands constitute the state's Natural Area Reserves System, a program designed to protect representative samples of Hawaii's unique biological ecosystems and geologic formations.

Despite their special status, these lands haven't gotten much special treatment. Many have been ignored and are rapidly declining. But other reserves can still be protected, prompting state officials to try new management tactics that stress public participation.

"Ultimately, we will create something more enduring," Wilson said. "Because you can't count on government to save resources."

Nineteen reserves have been set aside over the past 20 years, encompassing 109,000 acres, or less than 1 percent of Hawaii's land mass. This year, the state is spending about $1.3 million to manage its most exceptional acreage, down from $2.1 million four years ago.

A Laysan albatross chick hides in a naupaka plant.

"We're just trying to hold our own, and in some areas we aren't," said Mike Buck, director of the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife, which oversees the program.

Ken Wood, a botanist with the National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kauai, has witnessed the neglect. He has spent much of the past decade studying plants in the reserves, and his report from the field isn't pretty.

"Each year these ecosystems recede further back and the weedy stuff moves in," he said. "The key is active management, with the emphasis on active."

Instead, the state has often taken a more passive approach, hampered by a lack of money, staffing, vision and expertise. Scientists and state land managers agree that some of the reserves are no longer pristine and should be replaced by other more ecologically valuable lands.

Buck said a review of all the reserves is under way and some boundary changes are likely. In some cases, such as on Kauai, program money is already being funneled away from hurricane-ravaged reserves and into high-quality wilderness lands that are outside the system in the Alakai Swamp.

The ohai (left) and other native plants now blanket damaged land. Above, albotrosses have returned to court their mates and nest.

The state is also looking to revise some management plans that haven't been supported by residents, such as those that have created conflicts with Big Island and Molokai hunting groups. One of the toughest issues facing the program is whether animals should be eliminated from the reserves or managed for hunting.

"You can't write too many plans from Honolulu," Buck said. "You've got to get the community involved. They need some ownership in the process."

Buck would especially like to see more Hawaiians participate in deciding how the lands are used and interpreted. Many of the reserves contain significant archaeological and cultural features.

"We haven't yet made that connection between cultural Hawaiian values and the natural areas," he said.

Meanwhile, Wilson is moving to improve management of the reserves and other public lands through volunteer labor and partnerships with botanical gardens, research programs, private landowners and nonprofit community organizations.

Such efforts make people more aware of both the beauty and fragility of Hawaii's resources, he said, and can attract grant money and donations to supplement lean state budgets.

Wood believes it's good to include people in certain management efforts, such as hunting and weeding. But he doesn't think residents should have the final say in how the rare lands are used and managed.

A view from the point, looking across sand dunes down the Waianae coast.

"They're fickle, they change their minds every decade," Wood said. "And they're not steadfast in the ultimate, which is to preserve the ecosystem for itself and not for our special interests."

Buck said he understands "the concept of biological treasures, but unless the public is willing to support that with funding, it won't happen."

The law that created the program calls for a buffer zone around each reserve, allowing it to evolve naturally, Buck said.

"But that's impossible. You need to integrate human beings and what they want."

The three Oahu reserves get the most public use, but they've also been the most actively managed, with impressive results. Birds and rare plants are returning, supported by steady pest control, replanting efforts and restricted vehicle access.

"Once you remove the main threats, the native species come back on their own," said Randy Kennedy, the Oahu reserves manager.

But such efforts require intensive labor and a long-term commitment.

"This is no rush program," said Pete Cabanilla, a state worker who spends his days weeding alien plants, tending fences and trapping mongooses, rats and mice in the Oahu reserves.

"There's so much work to do, it's gonna go beyond our lifetimes. But at least we've got the stepping stones in place."

Related Story:
Kaena Point shows what can be done

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