It's been spared wildlife destruction by the mongoose and its rugged cliffs and swampy interior discourage all but the most determined human encroachment.
Still, centuries of use have eliminated native ecosystems from 65 percent of the island, and now alien plants and animals are rapidly invading what's left. State land managers estimate only 5.5 percent of Kauai's acreage is ecologically pristine, and they're hard-pressed to stem the tide of destruction even there.
"What we're trying to do now is buy some time and slow down the process," said Ed Petteys, Kauai district manager for the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife.
To that end, state and federal land managers have become partners in one of Hawaii's most ambitious fencing projects: enclosing nine of the estimated 20 bogs that comprise the remote and soggy Alakai Swamp.
The bogs are among the most fragile ecosystems in the state and contain plants unique to Kauai, said Adam Asquith of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which proposed the project.
The fencing is intended to stop damage from wild pigs now, he said, to prevent more native flora from joining more than 200 Hawaiian plants already on the federal Endangered Species List.
Past fencing efforts on Kauai have been temporary and small-scale, designed to protect individual plants teetering on extinction. Most conservation work throughout the state has focused on preserving single species, Asquith said. "Now we're trying to recover entire ecosystems, and not just species. Ecosystem protection is what makes this different."
The federal and state partnership is also new on Kauai, and both sides remain a bit uneasy. "It's a first date and we're getting to know each other," Asquith said.
"But it could be a good relationship because they are the largest landowner and the service has money."
Kauai's state land managers are supporting the effort, with some reservations. "It's gonna be a heckuva learning opportunity," Petteys said. "We will get a lot of these concerns answered once and for all."
Chief among these is whether work crews and scientists will introduce weed seeds that can quickly sprout in areas cleared for fence lines. "This could be just another avenue to degrade the bogs," said Tom Telfer, state wildlife biologist for Kauai. When Hurricane Iniki cleared big patches in the island's interior, he said, "weed growth just took off like a rocket. It's like a cancer. And right now we do not have the means to deal with that."
Asquith said work crews have been taught to clean their gear, and fence lines will run through adjoining forest areas whenever possible to minimize effects on bog lands. The service also has responded to another of the state's concerns by agreeing to pay for fence maintenance and scientific monitoring of the bogs.
But Telfer fears those burdens eventually will fall on Kauai's small state forestry office. "Botanists, ecologists and researchers propose these things, but they don't know the cost of maintaining them."
Asquith, however, said the agency is committed.
"In the past, the federal government has often thrown money at a problem and walked away and the landowner is left paying for long-term maintenance. I'm excited because this is different."
The service has allocated $200,000 for the fencing, which Asquith hopes will be enough to enclose all nine bogs. The full cost is unknown, because the swamp's fickle weather will largely determine how long the job takes, he said.
Telfer and Petteys said they want to ensure the fencing effort doesn't alienate hunters, who help control the wild animals causing much of the damage.
Asquith said the bogs are quite remote, and the few hunters who go there have been notified of the project.
The service also will be building more community support for the effort by producing a video on Kauai's unique and fragile bogs for local television stations, Asquith said.
"It's extremely important for the public to understand what we're trying to do and what they can do to help."
Petteys agrees. The fate of Kauai's native ecosystems rests with more public involvement, he said. "We want people to come up with some meaningful alternatives, and also to see what it takes to do some of the things they want us to. There are no simple solutions."
Kauai's state land managers are hamstrung by inadequate funding, a small staff and frequent shifts in the political winds, Petteys said, while juggling growing demands for cultural and recreational uses. "There are just way more balls in the air than people realize."
Bogged down by the
rains, crews hang in
Theres no way out when theBy Joan Conrow
copters are grounded
Kauai fencing contractor Stuart Wellington knew it would be tough to run hog wire around nine bogs in the Alakai Swamp when he took on the job.
But that wasn't much consolation when he and his crew spent three days in their sleeping bags last month, waiting out the rain in a tent pitched in the swamp.
"The weather is probably the biggest" complication, said Ed Petteys, Kauai district manager for the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife. "If the clouds come in, the helicopter can't land to take you out."
"Being in the swamp is not pleasant," agreed Kauai state forester Alvin Kyono. "It's gonna be cold and it's gonna be wet."
But the soggy conditions aren't only tough on Wellington and his hand-picked crew of seasoned hunters and backwoodsmen.
They must use 10-foot posts in the peat moss, double the length normally required to secure a four-foot fence. And the galvanized posts aren't expected to last long in the acid soil.
Coupled with that are the difficult logistics of transporting everything and everyone entirely by helicopter to some of the most rugged and rainy spots on Earth. "It's definitely a challenge," Wellington said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is funding the project, hopes fencing will keep out wild pigs and allow rare native plants within the bog to recover before they reach endangered status.
Still, Petteys said, even the Herculean fencing effort "doesn't necessarily mean we've saved these bogs. We've just removed one element of disturbance. It's sort of like a computer game. As soon as you vanquish one group of attackers, another crop pops up."