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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 14, 2002

Preserving native forests key to maintaining Islands' health

By Heidi Bornhorst

The recent heavy rains on Kaua'i left the island's waters red and muddy and, I believe, helped lead to tragedy for a young waterman. If our Hawaiian forests were more intact and better managed, the waters would not have been so murky, drawing the sharks in.

Much of Limahuli Valley on Kaua'i is unspoiled, but keeping it so will require guarding against non-native pigs and plants.

Advertiser Library photo • May 1999

My heart goes out to 17-year-old Hokuanu Aki — who lost his foot and part of his calf to a shark attack March 25 and later underwent an amputation above the knee — and to his family and friends.

One of Aki's hula sisters was at a conference I recently attended on Kaua'i, and we cried and became enraged together about the shark attack.

It is not the shark's fault that we thoughtlessly dump fresh water (that we could recycle) into the ocean, or that we muddy the waters with our poorly planned activities. Things go wrong in nature when they are not in balance.

There is a natural cycle to how water should flow in the Islands. But big agriculture, along with the concept that man should "control" nature, made many changes in how and where the water flowed. Now, with the large-scale demise of sugar and pineapple in Hawai'i, the water picture and land management is changing.

Now is the time to give water to farmers to grow food and medicinal plants, and to nurseries to grow native Hawaiian plants and other green crops. Now is the time to restore streams and the entire life web that lives there. Now is the time to train our young people in forest management, and to control alien weeds and animals that are destroying our native forests.

While I was on Kaua'i for the conference, the rain was intense. One speaker, from the Limahuli garden of National Tropical Botanical Garden on the north shore of Kaua'i, couldn't get to the conference because the Hanalei Bridge was closed by the high water. Weeds, alien grazing animals, rampant development, and the increasing amount of pavement that prevents the water from soaking down into the land all contribute to soil erosion and mud in the water.

If we took better care of our precious and disappearing forests, planned for more permeable surfaces, and hunted pigs, goats and other pests out of the unique and fragile forests, the soil would stay on the land where it belongs.

One famous Mainland gardener once said that if you have weeds, you don't have enough plants. It follows that if the soil is washing away and muddying ocean waters and smothering the reef, you don't have enough plants on the land.

An undisturbed Hawaiian forest is a tight-knit web with layers and layers of life. Ferns, mosses and other smaller green plants, shrubs, flowering bushes and trees of all sizes grow together, filtering and softening the fall of rain so it doesn't hit the earth for a while.

We got to visit the Limahuli botanical garden on the north shore. Evidence of the big rains was all around.

Here, the garden is largely natural, and the upper mauka regions of the valley, with its lush rain forests, are about as near to pristine as you can get today. But feral pigs have threatened to overflow from the neighboring valleys. So National Tropical Botanical Garden staff members have installed a pig fence to keep them out.

As we toured the garden, the trail wound along Limahuli stream. This stream was deep and clear and blue. So beautiful. It only occurred to us later that every other stream we passed was red-brown and opaque with silt and mud.

Some people say the forests are already lost and that growing native plants in our gardens is the only way to save them. But many of us think that we should all do a lot more to convince our government agencies to really invest heavily in forest conservation and restoration. These forests are our big brother in Hawaiian culture. The sooner we act, the more we can preserve for future generations: not only the forests and the economy, but also the ability to surf in clear, pristine, safe water.