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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, May 21, 2001

Native plants are thriving in protected areas

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

MOUNT KA'ALA — The koli'i are flowering atop O'ahu, their sprays of purple-pink and cream blossoms arching toward the sun.

Christine Mai'i, surrounded by native vegetation, photographs the scenery at the Mount Ka'ala Natural Area Reserve on O'ahu. The area was once infested with introduced thorny blackberry, which can still be seen on some of the steepest slopes.

Jan TenBruggencate • The Honolulu Advertiser

These rare native trematolobelias — among the most spectacular bloomers in Hawaiian botany — are protected behind a rugged fence at the very summit of the island, at the edges of the 4,000-foot elevation bog within the Mount Ka'ala Natural Area Reserve.

They also are protected by teams of volunteers who pull invading weeds, capture wild pigs that tear up the forest floor and occasionally replant a species that has disappeared from the wild.

The shrubs exist in a wonderland of nature, of beautiful, healthy plants packed tightly together and tightly connected to the health of Hawai'i's present-day environment and the cultural history of the state's first people.

"If you hired a gardener to try and create this kind of garden, think of the price," said botanist, Hawaiian language speaker and chanter Sam Gon, who is director of science for The Nature Conservancy of Hawai'i.

He tells the story of a romantic chant associated with the tiny fern known as wahine-noho-mauna, or mountain-dwelling woman. He picks out one of the amazingly variable 'ohi'a trees of this area and reminds listeners that this tree is one of the forms — the kino lau — that could be assumed by Ku, the male god of war, governance and upland forests, and Laka, goddess of hula and the forest.

A team of hula students and other Hawaiian cultural practitioners, filmmakers, botanists, environmental activists and others visited the summit bog recently for the filming of a documentary on Hawai'i's natural area reserves.

The participants walked along a boardwalk installed by Sierra Club volunteers in 1989. And amid the "oohs" and "aahs" over the examples of native wet-forest biology, the recurring thread of conversation was over why more effort isn't spent in the Islands to protect such areas.

"We're hoping this film will be a way to reach the masses," said Marge Ziegler, an analyst with the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. The film is part of Earthjustice's Mauka-Makai Biodiversity Initiative, funded in part by the Hawai'i Community Foundation and the Atherton Foundation. It is being produced by Honolulu documentary filmmaker Kala Hoe.

Ziegler said the video should be complete this year, and copies will be sent to school districts and community groups. It will also be shown on community access cable channels and will be taken around the state to community informational meetings.

The white flowers to the left of the Mount Ka'ala Natural Area Reserve sign are blackberries, an invasive species that volunteers have been trying to eradicate. The best way to gain access to the reserve is to join a group such as the Division of Forestry and Wildlife, the Sierra Club of Hawai'i.

Jan TenBruggencate • The Honolulu Advertiser

Much of the argument over past decades for saving the native forests has been made by botanists and zoologists, and much of it goes over people's heads, she fears.

"You start going off about endemism and biodiversity ... sometimes our approach has been too scientific," Ziegler said.

It is time to bring the public into the discussion, she said, to show them that the native forest not only has scientific value, it has cultural value, it's beautiful, and it has economic importance as well.

"Hawaiian biodiversity is a Hawaiian issue," Ziegler said.

The value of the native forest as watershed, to recharge groundwater supplies upon which society depends for drinking water, is being increasingly recognized. The complex native forests, with dense mosses, ferns, shrubs, small trees and canopy trees, retain water, soak it up like a sponge and release it slowly. Many forests of introduced species like strawberry guava, eucalyptus and miconia produce monoculture forests with bare dirt that erodes away with each heavy rain.

The forest has economic value for bringing tourists to a unique environment, and for keeping residents.

"If Hawai'i ends up looking like every place else, then there's no reason to come here and no reason to stay here," said Kapua Sproat, a Kaua'i-raised attorney with Earthjustice.

The natural area reserves include 19 reserves on five islands, covering 109,164 acres of the most zoologically or culturally important state lands, such as the 1,100 acres on top of Ka'ala. The budget for managing them is about $1.2 million. Efforts to gain a secure source of permanent funding for the reserves failed in this year's Legislature.

Most of the reserves are threatened by feral pigs, and yet most are not fenced to exclude pigs. That is both because of lack of money and because of an active campaign by some local hunting organizations to keep the areas open for hunting.

It is an area in which naturalists and some members of the hunting community can find little common ground. Hunters say the fencing of hunting grounds will prevent them from using those areas, either for subsistence or sport.

Under a tall 'ohi'a tree near the summit of Mt. Ka'ala is the steel framework that once was part of a tramway from Schofield Barracks to the top of the mountain. Central O'ahu lies beyond.

Jan TenBruggencate • The Honolulu Advertiser

They're right, said Randy Kennedy, who runs the reserves program as the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife's Native Resources Program manager.

"It's not real compatible to have pigs in native forest. They just totally remove the understory. Pigs and rare plants are totally incompatible," he said.

Christine Mai'i, a student of kumu hula Pohai Souza, walked through the Ka'ala reserve in awe.

"It's inspiring to know that even on O'ahu, places like this still exist, a place where you can be alone in the natural environment," Mai'i said.

She stood at one point, photographing the ridge on the east side of upper Makaha Valley, with an orange-flowered 'oh'ia to her left, a pink-blossomed kanawao to her right, the cupped leaves of an alani bush overhead and an immature koli'i behind her.

This natural wonderment is not entirely pristine. It was once infested with introduced thorny blackberry, some of which still can be seen on the steepest, inaccessible slopes.

"What you see is the result of a lot of people's efforts" at conservation, said one of the members of the filming group.

There is a sense among members of this expedition that lawmakers and other members of the public only need to see the native forest to become convinced of the need to spend more money and effort to protect it.

One of the problems is that most pieces of mostly native vegetation are hard to reach, having been protected by their very isolation from invasions by alien species and from development.

Ka'ala can be reached by vehicle only through a twisting, one-lane road controlled by the military. It has multiple locked gates to protect the Federal Aviation Administration and military communications complex that lies next to the natural area reserve.

The best way to gain access to the reserve is to hook up with such groups as the Division of Forestry and Wildlife or the Sierra Club of Hawai'i. For information, call the O'ahu Natural Area Reserves program at 973-9783.

The Wai'anae Kai Trail reaches the summit from the south and the DuPont Trail from the north. Both are arduous routes. Check a hiking guide for details.