Honolulu Star-Bulletin Local News

Members of the Hawaiian Canoe Club hike up the
eroded surface of Kahoolawe. Maui rises in the background.

Photo by Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin

Restoring Kahoolawe

Gentle warriors now tread the land,
fighting to restore what has been lost

By Joan Conrow

First, they stopped the bombing. Now comes the hard part: cleaning up Kahoolawe and healing its ravaged environment.

"Restoration is a whole new thing for Hawaii," said Keoni Fairbanks, executive director of the state Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission.

"Most efforts in the past have been on protecting what's left."

On Kahoolawe, very little of the original landscape remains. Goats, bombs, fires and road-clearing stripped the vegetation and spurred massive erosion. After two centuries of abuse, the island is left with no intact native ecosystems, no dependable water source, scanty topsoil and a hardy crop of alien weeds.

"It's a pretty whacked island," said Paul Higashino, the commission's restoration ecologist. But extreme environmental degradation is just one challenge looming for those charged with restoring Kahoolawe. They've never tackled such a massive project in Hawaii, or faced such difficult logistics. Even the simple act of digging a hole for planting cannot be taken for granted, as only about 25 percent of the island will be cleared of unexploded ordnance.

They also have more routine worries, like getting rid of rats and cats that are killing native seabirds, and overcoming state liability laws and access problems that hamper greater use of volunteers.

Still, Higashino believes it can be done. He's seen a "dramatic change" in the island's vegetation cover just since the Navy got rid of the goats and reduced brush fires. Native plants are coming back, earlier plantings are reseeding and a new species was discovered last year.

Higashino and Fairbanks also are buoyed by what they feel is a spiritual change on the island.

"It's so much more wonderfully positive," Fairbanks said. "Although there's still so incredibly much to do xxx we really feel like now we have a base to build from. The island is more at peace. It knows it can come back to life now."

Higashino is working to support that rebirth by gathering cultural and scientific expertise. He'll be reviewing proposals - due Sept. 9 - for short-term research projects aimed at developing water sources, controlling erosion, building and conditioning soil, preventing fires, choosing and propagating Hawaiian plants and reintroducing native invertebrates and birds.

Those studies will help him create a restoration plan by next summer that could determine the course of the island's ecological recovery over the next 50 to 100 years.

The first priority, Fairbanks said, is to stop erosion and stabilize certain areas.

These lines of trees act as windbreaks, preserving topsoil and allowing plants to grow.
Photo by Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin

Meanwhile, the commission and its advisory panels must decide how to restore the island, and that means learning more about what originally was there.

Through charcoal and pollen analysis, experts have identified plant species once found on the island and charted their likely distribution. Kahoolawe probably was once covered with shrub lands and very low forests, similar to the northeast and Kanepuu areas of Lanai, Higashino said.

He hopes to gain additional insight into the island's ecological past - and find guiding principles for its future - through the study of ancient chants and traditional indigenous management practices.

"We recognize that there are other ways to look at and manage the island that incorporate prayer, chants and spiritual practices," he said. "We want to solicit that."

That's new to restoration work in Hawaii, and it probably won't be the only cutting-edge approach to emerge.

"Some of the methods used on Kahoolawe likely will be unconventional," Higashino said.

Although restoration will emphasize the re-establishment of wild native plant colonies, some areas probably will be set aside for sweet potato and breadfruit cultivation to help feed future visitors, he said.

Higashino also plans to employ an extensive land and ocean monitoring program to chart changes "so we can see what's working," he said.

Ecologists and land managers around Hawaii said they will be looking to Kahoolawe for tools and information that could aid other efforts around the state.

"There's been a lot of interest in Kahoolawe and a lot of people are willing to contribute," Higashino said.

"Still, I hope no one has to ever do this again."

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