State of Hawaii

State looks at
plant screening

Researchers work on ways to
stop imports of alien plant threats

By Gary T. Kubota

WAILUKU >> State researchers and commercial growers are looking at new ways to prevent the entry of alien plants that could cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in weed control.

Lelan Nishek, representing a group of nursery growers on Kauai, said he knows some plant growers fear a new system may keep certain plants out of Hawaii, but he agrees with the direction of the effort.

Nishek said nursery growers have been working with the state to develop a new system and will be discussing results of a study evaluating various plants.

Commercial growers met last year on the Big Island with state officials to discuss improving the method of screening harmful plants.

"It's going to affect the nursery industry a little ... but it's a good idea," he said. "It's not set in stone at this time."

Critics note the current system has allowed the legal importation of a number of alien species that have caused problems in farmlands and native forests.

Miconia calvescens, one of the examples cited by environmentalists, was allowed to enter Hawaii as an ornamental plant in the late 1950s.

Since realizing its adverse impact on other Pacific islands such as Tahiti in the late 1990s, state officials have spent millions of dollars to prevent miconia from destroying native forests and watersheds in Hawaii.

The current system allows plants to be imported into Hawaii if they are not on the state agricultural list of noxious weeds.

Critics say the list of banned plants in Hawaii is too short, containing only about 80 noxious weeds, and is designed primarily to protect the state's sugar and pineapple industry.

Ernie Rezents, vice chairman of the Maui County Arborist Advisory Committee, said the current system does not work and has allowed the entry of a number of plants harmful to the Valley Isle's watershed and pastures.

"It's a real problem," he said. "I think it's time we scrutinize what we bring in. It's time to bite the bullet."

Under a $100,000 federal and state study, University of Hawaii botanist Curtis Daehler has been developing a new scoring system to determine if the plant poses any significant danger to Hawaii's ecosystem.

Those wishing to bring in a new species would be required to fill in an application used to evaluate the plant.

"If it fails, it would not be let in," he said.

Daehler said the score of a plant is done quickly, in about four to five hours. He said he has evaluated about 80 plants using the scoring system and plans to assess about 200 plants by June.

Some of the questions focus on the life history of the plant, its natural environment and its ability to reproduce seeds.

Daehler said once the 200 plants are evaluated, he plans to send the list of them to botanists and weed experts in the Pacific to see if they have similar results in their evaluations.

Daehler said in Western Australia, where a similar scoring system has been used, there have been few complaints.

Under the Western Australian system, a plant profiler is in charge of evaluating applications to allow entry of alien species.

The profiler evaluates alien plants that are not on an approved list of thousands of species allowed in the country.

Daehler said the move to a new system would take place gradually, and he plans to help find alternative plants that might be used by commercial growers if the plant they are using poses a problem.

He said a large part of the process will be increasing public awareness and making available a list of plants that have an adverse impact on the environment.

"We can't say you have to stop importing, but we can suggest it and educate the public," he said.

State of Hawaii

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