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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, March 4, 2006

Forests targeted as lab for learning

By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Neighbor Island Editor

Two forest areas on the Big Island one dry, the other damp are expected to together become the Hawai'i Experimental Tropical Forest, "a living learning laboratory" that would be open to world-class researchers and kindergartners alike.

The experimental forest would allow scientists to conduct long-term studies on topics ranging from global warming's impact on tropical forests to soil ecology and restoration of dryland forests. The sites, on state-owned land and jointly managed by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and the U.S. Forest Service, also would be open to school groups.

"It will open up an entire resource of research that our department doesn't have the staff to be able to put in place. So, we're basically getting the caliber of the U.S. Forest Service coming in and backing us up on research issues of importance to Hawai'i," said Paul Conry, head of the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife.

Hawaiian tropical forests are the only forests in the United States without representative experimental forests. Because they are unique and confronting various threats, the project is sorely needed, officials said.

"There's a lot of unknown about forests in Hawai'i," said Steve Smith of Forestry Management Consultants Hawai'i on Kaua'i. "When I got into the business nearly 25 years ago, people thought that koa didn't regenerate naturally. It does; it's like a weed, as a matter of fact. So, there's a lot of what I call mythology connected with the forests in Hawai'i.

"We know more about non-native species than about native species, and I always felt that was backwards."

Smith, who also is president of the Hawai'i Forest Industry Association, which supports the experimental forest plan, said he is looking forward to research that could lead to the establishment of koa plantations at lower elevations on former sugar or pasture lands.

"The experimental forest program will allow for research not only on restoration of forests and things of that nature and watershed enhancement, it will also provide time and space for commercial applications," Smith said.

During a scoping process that included meetings with private, public and community interests, two properties emerged as the top candidates for the experimental forest: the Laupahoehoe Forest on the windward side of Mauna Kea part of the 65,500-acre Hilo Forest Reserve as an example of wet forest, and the 40,000-acre Pu'u Wa'awa'a Forest in North Kona, as the dry forest.

The Laupahoehoe Forest is home to endangered plants and animals, and stands of 'ohi'a and koa trees.

The site "would provide researchers with a globally unique opportunity to study environmental gradients from the upper limits of agriculture at lower elevations through eight life zones terminating at alpine at almost 14,000 feet in elevation," according to a report prepared by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Forest Service.

Other site advantages include access to former plantation roads and proximity to the University of Hawai'i-Hilo and the Forest Service's Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry research center in Hilo, the report says.

The Pu'u Wa'awa'a ahupua'a, running from sea level to an elevation of about 6,300 feet, features dryland forests, which are among the most endangered forests in the world.

Koa dominates the upper elevations at Pu'u Wa'awa'a. The potential to study the watershed and links between forests and marine environment are great because the ahupua'a runs from the ocean up to higher elevations, according to the report.

U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawai'i, pushed for passage of the Hawai'i Tropical Forest Recovery Act, which was signed into law in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush. The act intended to promote the recovery of Hawai'i's tropical forests and establish an experimental site to serve as a center for long-term research. But after a strong start, with discussions and studies by a variety of working groups, progress stalled for years.

Conry tied the delay to state-federal partnership issues, among other things. On the Mainland, experimental forests have been carved out of extensive Forest Service holdings. Since a vast land base doesn't exist in Hawai'i, a new model for establishing an experimental forest on state land had to be developed.

Problems with invasive species, declining dryland forests and wildfires, which have come to the forefront as threats in more recent years, are guiding the the focus of research.

Smith said progress picked up in the past two years when Boone Kauffman took over the Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry, and in April, Gov. Linda Lingle asked U.S. Agriculture Secretary Michael Johanns to take the necessary steps to establish the forest. In June, Johanns requested that DLNR and the Forest Service start a scoping process and prepare a report of findings.

The Board of Land and Natural Resources approved the report last month and authorized the DLNR to develop a memorandum of understanding with the Forest Service to establish and manage the Laupahoehoe and Pu'u Wa'awa'a sites. The recommendation is being forwarded to Lingle and Johanns for review, and once approved, work will begin on setting boundaries, environmental studies and other planning.

The report estimates initial five-year spending of $6 million for roads, fencing, a research lab, a covered instructional area, a water catchment system, dormitory, staffing and other needs. Conry said the money is expected to come from the federal government.

In addition to Smith's group, other supporters of the experimental forest include the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Hawai'i Conservation Alliance.

During scoping meetings, some hunters expressed concern about whether land now open to hunting would be fenced off. They also noted potential safety hazards related to mixing hunting and research activities.

The report suggests that a state-federal memorandum of understanding for the experimental forest allow public access. Although some small, sensitive research areas may be fenced off, the report says the agreement should acknowledge "there are no plans to limit activities such as hunting or gathering within boundaries of the experimental forest."

Responding to the report, Big Island hunter Richard Hoeflinger said, "That's the first red flag to a hunter: 'We're not going to really do anything.' "

He said the hunting community in general has never objected to small areas that needed to be fenced off for protection. "The problem has been that "when hunters go back to the fenced areas, nobody has done anything to maintain them and there are huge weed patches. At least when the animals were in there they kept the weeds down," he said.

The upper level of the Laupahoehoe Forest is the only good place in East Hawai'i to hunt for pigs without dogs, said Hoeflinger, who has been hunting for more than 50 years. "It's open enough that you can stalk-hunt the pigs."

In Pu'u Wa'awa'a, wild sheep, goats and pigs are hunted.

Hoeflinger is a member of the state Natural Area Reserve Commission, which voted to support the establishment of the Hawai'i Experimental Tropical Forest. Despite his wariness, Hoeflinger said he doesn't believe the experimental forest will have much impact on hunting.

Reach Christie Wilson at cwilson@honoluluadvertiser.com.