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Star-Bulletin Features

Monday, November 6, 2000

Nature Conservancy of Hawaii
A Maui 'amakihi sips nectar from a native koli'i plant.

Earthly treasures

Tom Coffman's documentary
urges people to be cognizant of
their impact on our fragile ecoystem

"Humanity's dominance of Earth means that we cannot escape responsibility for managing the planet."
-- Peter Vitousek, conservation biologist, Stanford University

By Cynthia Oi

Lowell Thomas decided when he was in high school that he would get himself a job that would let him spend time outdoors, that would have something to do with the environment and that would be rewarding.

Today, the 36-year-old tramps through forests, crawls up mountains and rappels down cliffs while fighting off mosquitoes, bees and wasps to cut and poison weeds, all for about $8 an hour. He's not complaining.

Thomas is one of four Big Island field workers who do daily battle to keep miconia from taking over native forests. The invasive, opportunistic plant kills ground-cover plants that hold the soil. No ground cover means erosion and erosion contributes to the destruction of the forest watershed ecosystem. No forest means no water, not only for plants and animals, but for the humans whose acts contribute to the problem.

Nature Conservancy of Hawaii
An Amau fern displays striking colors in a Hawaii rainforest.

Through recklessness, fecklessness and plain ignorance, humans have imperiled these ecosystems. Now a new documentary examines the destruction and efforts to save and restore them.

"May Earth Live: A Journey Through the Hawaiian Forest," a film produced by writer-historian Tom Coffman and funded in part by The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii, was screened as part of the Hawai'i International Film Festival and will air on Hawaii Public Television this week.

The documentary, Coffman said, "jumps you out of the kind of Earth Day orientation. It's a long-time perspective that leads you to the conclusion that we're not all going extinct tomorrow, but if we don't start applying what we are learning, we are courting disaster."

Peter Vitousek, a leading conservation biologist who grew up in Hawaii, points out in the film that the changes wrought by humans is rapidly outpacing our understanding of those changes. His call for human responsibility resonates among crew members of Operation Miconia, a state Agriculture Department effort.

Like Thomas, Kenneth Temple, 30, loves the physicality of his job, but also feels he is making a contribution. "I'm doing something that in 20 years time will have results, that if it hadn't been done, the Earth would have more problems," Temple said.

"We are doing something to save native forests," Thomas said. "But we could use some help."

They sure could, said Nelson Ho, their supervisor. New state funding is allowing him to hire three more people, but he'd like to have 20, he said.

Even with more help, it would likely take 25 years before the plant is no longer a forest threat, said Kim Tavares, Operation Miconia's information coordinator. "If we could kill all the flowering trees, it would still be 10 years before we'd know they were all gone," she said, because miconia seeds last up to eight years.

Still, she's upbeat. A recent volunteer effort on the Kona side of the island was successful in ridding the area of miconia.

Ho sings the praises of volunteers. Without them, removal would be too much for the crew and forests would be lost.

That would be a tragedy, Tavares said. "I don't want to see the native forests turned into miconia forests. We would lose so much -- not only birds and other plants, we would lose a special thing about Hawaii."

Crew member David Naldoza said that although he has been stung by bees (in one attack 75 times), cut by machetes and although the work is arduous and sometimes dangerous, he finds rewards. The biggest is knowing he's saving native forests for his three sons.

The 26-year-old, who is expecting a fourth child, said his boys are curious about his work. "They ask me every day where I went, what did I see, what was it like. Sometimes, if can, I take them where I've been. They like that."

Another reward is that the job gets him places he'd never have access to.

All three men smiled when they talked about that. They recalled a recent day they sat at the top of Akaka Falls. "We could look out and around us the forest. Sitting and listening to the water falling," Naldoza said. "My boys should have that, too."

Coffman's documentary presses the element of responsibility humans have in preserving the ecosystems. It also displays how we cannot anticipate results of what seem to be innocent actions.

The plant lover who brought miconia to Hawaii 40 years ago likely had no idea the pretty plant would cause such destruction. Western settlers who introduced game animals for hunting did not know the impact of these animals on island forests.

The documentary "resonates with the obvious lesson that everything is tied together," Coffman said. "There is a political imperative that we have to apply what we know and on some level we have to acknowledge man's impact on Earth.

"I'm hopeful. If we use our heads and up our commitment, yeah, we can pull it off."

'May Earth Live'

Bullet On TV: 9 p.m. Thursday and 1 p.m. Saturday
Bullet Channel: KHET/PBS

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