Public, Private Sectors Join to Save Hawaii's Fragile Ecosystems State and Conservation Groups Rally to Preserve Largest Concentration of Endangered Species in US

Article excerpt

The Hawaiian Islands, considered by many to be the world's most outstanding living laboratory for the study of evolution and island biology, teeter on the brink of environmental crisis.

Officials of state organizations and private conservation groups say that progress has been made since Hawaii declared a biological emergency three years ago, but the world's constant attention is needed to keep the effort moving forward.

"Because life forms on islands epitomize nature's vulnerability to extinction and are simultaneously attractive to tourists and development, {Hawaii} poses the question as nowhere else," says Donald Kennedy, former president of Stanford University, now a biology professor there. "How much of the first part can you save under pressure from the second?"

The environmental stakes here are hard to overstate.

Home to over 10,000 life forms found nowhere else on Earth, Hawaii also contains the largest concentration of endangered organisms in the United States: the crested honeycreeper, Maui parrotbill, geranium humile, and hibiscuskokio to name but a few. Eleven birds are close to extinction, which accounts for 40 percent of all endangered birds in the US. Hawaii has 35 percent of the country's endangered plants despite having only .2 of 1 percent of the land mass of the US.

"When species disappear, ecosystems deteriorate and human life everywhere suffers," says Mark White, director of Maui programs for the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii. "Loss of species is only an indicator that something very serious is happening to the environment."

The state's wake-up call came in 1991.

A decade of private, state, and federal efforts culminated in the first comprehensive inventory of plants, animals, fish, and habitat since Hawaii was granted to statehood in 1959. The results were dramatic: Nearly two-thirds of the original forest cover had been lost, including 50 percent of vital rainforests; of 140 listed species of native birds, only 70 remained, of which 33 were endangered; and 37 plant species were listed as endangered, with 152 more to be proposed. The state subsequently declared itself to be in biological emergency.

Three years later, because of partnerships among private entities, public entities, and individual landowners, Hawaii has done much to try to alleviate its problems.

In an unprecedented move to ensure long-term protection of the state's natural environment, the Legislature last year approved $2 million in dedicated funding for two innovative conservation programs that promote such private-public partnerships. Named the Natural Area Partnerships and Forest Stewardship, the programs are heartily backed by 30 organizations as diverse as the Hawaii Visitors' Bureau, the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii, the Hawaii Association of Realtors, and the Hawaii Sugar Planters Association.

"These partnership programs actually save the state money because we don't have to buy land to protect it," says Keith Ahue, Director of the Department of Land and Natural Resources. "By encouraging landowners to manage the lands themselves, we are also getting more people involved in the important job of protecting Hawaii's watersheds and native plants and animals."

Through the Natural Area Partnership program, the state provides landowners with matching funds ($2 state to $1 private) to manage lands that contain intact native forests and habitat for endangered plants and animals. In return, landowners must permanently dedicate their lands to conservation.

The Forest Stewardship program provides matching funds (up to $1 state to $1 private) to landowners to enhance and restore marginal lands with important natural resources such as nonnative watersheds, patches of native forests, or isolated populations of rare or endangered species. Landowners must make a minimum 10-year commitment to the program. …