Honolulu Star-Bulletin Local News
Tree snake funds
win Clinton OK

The president budgets $1.6 million
to avert an ‘ecological disaster’

By Pete Pichaske

WASHINGTON -- After years of federal indifference and occasional ridicule, Hawaii's battle against the brown tree snake is finally getting some respect here.

In his 1998 budget, President Clinton has recommended doubling to $1.6 million the amount to control the snake, which has wrought environmental and economic havoc in Guam and, many fear, would do the same if it spread to Hawaii.

Clinton's proposal is the first time any president has proposed funding to combat the snake, although money has been added to the federal budget by Congress every year for the past half-dozen.

"It's great," said Jennifer Sabas, an aide to Sen. Daniel Inouye, who has led previous efforts to include anti-snake funding in the budget. "It's certainly needed."

"It's taken a long time," said Larry Nakahara, manager of the Hawaii Department of Agriculture's plant quarantine branch.

"For a long time now, there's been a feeling that the brown tree snake problem is a national problem, but it was only being addressed in Hawaii. We need more help from the federal government."

The problem is hardly new in Hawaii -- much less Guam, where the brown tree snake, indigenous to Australia, took hold a few decades ago and since has wiped out nine of the island's 11 indigenous bird species, caused numerous power failures and bitten hundreds of people.

Because of the similar climates and the estimated two dozen military and commercial flights weekly between Guam and Hawaii, state officials fear the snake would cause similar damage in Hawaii. They also fear it could harm the state's biggest industry by scaring away tourists.

"What happened in Guam would happen here," said Nakahara.

Six years ago Congress began appropriating money to keep the snake out of Hawaii, most of it to inspect planes arriving from Guam. But while federal spending has grown steadily, not everyone here has taken the brown tree snake seriously.

Taxpayers' groups routinely dismissed the appropriation as wasteful, the U.S. News and World Report scorned it as "silly spending," and Vice President Al Gore, in his 1993 report on "reinventing government," called it pork-barrel politics at its worst.

Clinton's proposed $1.6 million expenditure is an indication that at least his administration is convinced of the threat. The Clinton budget report warns that more spending is needed to avert an "ecological disaster of epic proportions" in Hawaii.

The $1.6 million would be earmarked for research on ways to eradicate or reduce the brown tree snake population, including chemicals that repel the snakes and viruses that could kill them. Until now, most snake control efforts have focused on detection.

Nakahara applauded those efforts, but said the federal government also needs to do more to inspect military and commercial flights out of Guam. Not all flights are inspected now, he said, because there is no single authority governing Guam-U.S. flights.

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