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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, March 21, 2001

Scientists want more money to fight miconia

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

A fungus released to attack the aggressive weed tree miconia appears to work quite well, making its leaves drop off, but the trees respond by growing faster.

"(The fungus) should affect the growth, but it didn't. The (infected) trees grew more than our control trees," said Eloise Killgore, plant pathologist with the state Department of Health's Plant Pest Control Branch.

It is a mystery that convinces pest control scientists that they need to step up efforts to better understand and control miconia, one of the most virulent forest pests in the Islands. But instead of increasing financing, this year's Legislature appears ready to significantly reduce it.

Miconia is a fast-growing tree with large leaves that are shiny dark green on top and purple on the bottom. While beautiful, the plants are a cancer on the native landscape. They have wiped out entire forests of native plants in Tahiti.

They grow in wet forest areas, places where residents pick maile for graduation lei, where hula troupes collect ferns to adorn dancers and where native birds sing. The miconia grows so dense that nothing else survives. The soil beneath them is often bare, promoting soil erosion and damaging watersheds. On Maui, the Department of Water Supply is helping finance control efforts for fear of lost watersheds.

The dropping of fungus-infected leaves indicates the plants are under stress. If they grow faster in response to that stress, some other part of their biology may be suffering, but researchers aren't sure what.

"We're not sure what that actually means," said ecologist David Duffy, unit leader of the University of Hawai'i's Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit.

Duffy suggested biological control is like a group of small football players trying to take down a giant ball carrier. "You have to pile on, and this fungus was just the first tackle," he said.

He said researchers need to go to miconia's Central American native terrain to find the insects and diseases that keep it in control there, and bring back those insects and diseases that will affect miconia without damaging native or economically important plants, he said. Of course, that takes money.

"We need biocontrol. If we don't do it, we're never going to get ahead of it," said Patrick Conant, an entomologist with the state Department of Agriculture.

The fear of those in the invasive species programs across the state is that there won't be financing in the coming year to even keep up the existing level of miconia control. In fiscal year 2001, the state put up $500,000 to control infestations on Hawai'i, Maui, O'ahu and Kaua'i. That money was matched by $137,000 in U.S. Forest Service money. Other agencies providing financing included the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy of Hawai'i, Hawai'i Community Foundation, Maui County Council and the Maui County Board of Water Supply.

This year, only a $200,000 appropriation for several invasive species survives in the Legislature. That is not even enough to match $260,000 available in federal grants, which require appropriations in the same amount from the state, said U.S. Forest Service forester Duane Nelson, chairman of the state-federal-private Coordinating Group for Alien Pest Species.

Nelson said controlling miconia is not going to be easy. It is established on 20,000 acres on the Big Island, the worst infestation. It is found in smaller numbers on Kaua'i and O'ahu, but is a real problem on Maui, where it has evaded a strong community effort to control it.

"We need an increase in funding. Miconia may be getting away from us on Maui," said Fred Kraus of the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife.