2006 Environmental Heroes

Maui's native ecosystems face continuing threat—but we can help restore the balance. Here are five people and one dog who are making a difference.

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Jason Hilford

reef guardians

Guardian of the Reef

If you snorkel at Honolua Bay, don’t be surprised to see Liz Foote at her marine station, where, along with a group of volunteers, she shows visitors how to take care of the reef. Honolua is one of many marine locations around the island where Foote’s tireless efforts have made an impact.

“I always felt a connection to the ocean,” says Foote. “I’ve always loved it, been fascinated with everything in it, and wanted to know everything about the whole ecosystem.” As executive director of Project S.E.A.-Link, which she helped start in 1999, Foote has a chance to share that knowledge with an increasingly wider audience.

Project S.E.A.-Link (the initials stand for Science, Education, Awareness) is the Maui field station of REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation), a national nonprofit organization that educates the public on marine responsibility and—with the help of volunteer divers and snorkelers armed with fish-counting slates—maintains a national database of fish species populations, a valuable tool for conservation and research programs.

Although Project S.E.A.-Link has made use of around 1,000 volunteers, the core organization is much smaller: headquarters is an extra bedroom in Foote’s Napili apartment—where she is currently building the organization’s Web site herself. Although she receives a salary from REEF, Foote works mostly from grants—and she logs more volunteer hours than she can count conducting beach cleanups, teaching, and surveying. “It’s a job that never ends,” she laughs. “I just wish I had more hours in the day.”

Foote’s latest project is Kanaka Malama Kai, a marine program that trains volunteers to be “roving naturalists” who visit various beach sites and, as Foote simply puts it, “talk to people.”

“People need to realize that coral is alive,” says Foote, referring to beachgoers who kick the reef with their fins or break off pieces as souvenirs.

Foote also started the Fish Feeding Amnesty Program at Honolua, collecting food from would-be fish feeders, whose predecessors have all but tamed some of the marine life at Honolua. The most visible of these solicitors are chub, a large blue-grey fish, many of which have been witnessed seeking handouts from snorkelers and divers. When reef fish become dependent on humans for food, they ignore their natural food sources, which in turn disturbs the balance of the reef.

Although she expresses dismay at the irresponsibility of one Maui guidebook that provides a primer in how to feed reef fish, Foote maintains a positive outlook. “Many people don’t realize the impact they have,” she says. “If they have enough information, people can be responsible.”

A former substitute teacher, Foote hopes to use her contacts with oceanographic researchers to develop classroom curricula. “I’ve always known that environmental education is where I wanted to focus most of my efforts,” she says. Until then, her classroom will continue to be the ocean.

For more information on Project S.E.A.-Link, visit its Web site at www.projectsealink.org.

Leaving a Legacy

Don Reeser may be one of the only national park superintendents who ever had to worry about something as seemingly non-park-related as an airport or a commercial harbor. But then again, Haleakala National Park, from which Reeser retired last July after 17 years of service, is no ordinary park. Reeser has a reputation throughout the island—and the Park Service—as a thoughtful man who has always been dedicated to protecting the land he loves.

Haleakala is the home to such species as the Haleakala silversword, which only grows on that particular volcano. Fences erected under Reeser’s jurisdiction have completely rid the crater of feral goats, whose penchant for “silversword salad” was threatening the plants. Today, the silversword is thriving.

Fencing has also given the lush Kipahulu Valley a reprieve from pigs, which, in Reeser’s words, are “like little bulldozers,” not only uprooting plants, but creating ruts where puddles form and mosquitoes, which threaten native birds, can breed like crazy.

“Keeping areas restricted from human contact [for the purpose of restoration] works in most places—but not here,” says Reeser. “Because the native Hawaiian plants are so threatened by exotic species, without active management, you’re going to lose it all.”

Some of Reeser’s “active management” included a successful campaign to block the lengthening of the Kahului Airport runway to
prevent international flights—and a petition, unsuccessful so far, calling for Hawai‘i Superferry to issue an environmental impact statement. (See story on page 46.) Reeser saw both ventures as potential sources  of invasive plant and animal species. “The best way to restore native vegetation is to keep the exotics out before they get here,” he says.

“But it’s surprising how fast the native ecosystem comes back when given a chance.”

The superintendent also formed a partnership with Kipahulu ‘Ohana—an organization dedicated to preserving Hawaiian culture—encouraging the group to restore ancient taro patches in the Kipahulu region. Although taro is not native to the islands, it was brought over by early Polynesians and is thus, according to Reeser, “legitimate for restoration in that area.”

Reeser’s career saw other types of restoration as well. In 1998, the park obtained the spectacular Ka‘apahu watershed on the volcano’s southeastern slope, home to virgin koa forests and native bird populations. “That area was almost lost,” he muses, recounting that it had already been parceled for sale when the park acquired it. Reeser also helped forge a plan to keep helicopters from flying over the crater; it’s been adopted in parks throughout the entire nation.

Even in retirement, Reeser is continuing his service to the park—this time as a volunteer tour guide—sharing his knowledge about and love for the volcano. As it stands now, his work has led to a healthier, more biologically diverse Maui.

To learn more about Haleakala National Park, visit the park on the Web at www.nps.gov/hale.

For information on Kipahulu ‘Ohana, go to www.kipahulu.org.

Enlightened Management

Who says corporations have to sacrifice the environment in order to stay in business? Randy Bartlett, Maui Land and Pineapple Company’s Pu‘u Kukui Watershed manager, works hard to ensure that this fragile land within his employer’s holdings remains pristine.

Pu‘u Kukui (Hawaiian for “Hill of Light”) is an 8,661-acre tract of untouched land at the summit of the West Maui Mountains—Hawai‘i’s largest private nature preserve—with 12 distinct plant communities and more than 30 rare or endangered plant species. Plants like the liliwai, a tiny member of the rose family whose numbers may be in the single digits, and animals such as the hoary bat—Maui’s only native land mammal—make Pu‘u Kukui their home. Open to the public only on rare guided hikes, the area is flourishing without the threat of being disturbed.

Bartlett has supervised Pu‘u Kukui’s preservation since 1988; his first few years involved a great deal of fence-building, weed-pulling, and surveying the area for native plants. Although increased responsibilities have kept him in the office a lot more over the past decade, he can still be found in the field accompanying his two full-time employees, who now perform most of the grueling physical labor of maintaining the preserve.

Bartlett gives much credit to his employer for its efforts to keep the area pristine. “ML&P is really committed to the preserve and to its expansion,” he says, referring to a current effort to protect another 3,200 acres. If all goes well, the preserve will extend all the way down to the ocean at Honolua Bay.

Bartlett’s commitment to Maui’s environment expands to what he calls “the other side of the coin”: eradicating invasive species. In 1991, he cofounded the Melastome Action Committee—now known as the Maui Invasive Species Committee (MISC)—an influential nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping Maui free of those persistent critters and weeds that threaten to choke out Maui’s native plant and animal populations. Bartlett still chairs that organization. He is also a board member of Friends of Moku‘ula, Inc., which works to preserve historically significant Hawaiian sites; and a board member of the Conservation Council for Hawai‘i (affiliated with the National Wildlife Federation), whose mission is to conserve and restore Hawai‘i’s unique natural heritage.

“The ancient Hawaiian tradition of protecting the entire native watershed is really important,” says Bartlett, “not only for the biodiversity of rare endemic species—some that only live on the island of Maui, some that only live in West Maui—but because the entire West Maui watershed is a major water source for a large part of the island.” With Bartlett’s help, that watershed will be preserved for all future island inhabitants—whether they take root, fly, or walk on two, six, or eight legs.

For more information:
• On Pu‘u Kukui Preserve, call ML&P at (808) 877-3351 or log on to www.mauiland.com/puukukui.html.
• On MISC, call (808) 573-MISC (6472) or log on to www.hear.org/misc.
• On Friends of Moku‘ula, log on to www.mokuula.com,
• On Conservation Council for Hawai‘i, log on to www.conservehi.org.

Sniffing for Stowaways

It’s amazing what people try to bring in,” says Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture (HDOA) dog handler John Frostad. Since last July, Frostad has patrolled the baggage-claim area of Kahului Airport with Jordan, an HDOA beagle, to detect “stowaways” in arriving luggage. From a microscopic virus on a piece of fruit to something as enormous as a python, all plants and animals—and even soil and seeds—are potential hazards to Maui’s fragile ecosystem. Every plant, animal, or agricultural product that Jordan detects (and Frostad confiscates) is a  possible environmental disaster Maui has dodged.

On a particularly fruitful day in October, Jordan detected 41 potentially threatening items, of which 15 came in undeclared, 19 were considered residual (that is, the scent was left over from something that had previously been in the bag), and only 7 were declared. Frostad maintains that many passengers simply don’t know what they are bringing in, and only a few guilty parties are actual smugglers. Regardless of passengers’ intentions, however, each of these discoveries was a reprieve to our vulnerable island ecosystem.

In 1989, HDOA officials in Honolulu were concerned about an increase in incoming flights. Financially unable to hire additional agricultural inspectors, the department arrived at a better solution.

“We realized that dogs could move freely among passengers, from one flight to another,” says Lester Kaichi, one of HDOA’s three original dog handlers on O‘ahu, and now the department’s detector-dog coordinator.

Three years later, the idea sprouted at Hawai‘i’s second-busiest destination for domestic flights—Maui’s Kahului Airport. A one-dog, one-human team now patrols here, and two additional teams are planned.

For now, it’s Frostad and Jordan who are constantly on the lookout for intruders like the brown tree snake, which could decimate Hawaiian bird populations. In fact, because Maui is not a legal port of entry for animals, Jordan sniffs for all reptiles, birds, fish, and domestic animals, all of which have to pass through the animal inspection port in Honolulu first.

Jordan also searches for plant products, including fruits, vegetables, and flowers. Although not all plant products are forbidden, many can transport disease-carrying organisms (for instance, says Frostad, Florida citrus is known for carrying diseases and parasites). Insects like aphids and thrips can harbor viruses capable of wiping out an entire plant species. And birds and insects alike can carry West Nile virus and bird flu.

According to Frostad, Jordan is a first-rate inspector. “Beagles have great noses,” he says. “They’re generally seen as nonthreatening because they’re small and cute. The fact that we use a dog lets people know what we’re trying to do and encourages them to be honest with us about what they’re carrying.”

With Jordan’s help, that honesty could help save an ecosystem.

• For more information on invasive species, visit the Hawaiian  Ecosystems at Risk project website, www.hear.org
• Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture Web page: www.hawaiiag/hdoa.

neneThe Fledgling

Jenna Kalalau spent 2005 helping to look after some of Maui’s most endangered residents. Through her 10-month term of service with Americorps, the 19-year-old Baldwin High School graduate teamed up with the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) in its quest to revive the island’s native bird and plant populations—and in doing so, helped finance her own future education.

From May to October, Kalalau was based primarily at Kanaha Pond, a fragile wetland near the Kahului Airport that houses several rare Hawaiian birds, including the endangered koloa maoli (Hawaiian duck). Koloa maoli are especially vulnerable to predators like mongooses, rats, and feral cats during their egg incubation period, which lasts about 28 days. Kalalau helped capture those hungry hunters at Kanaha, while also building and maintaining nesting structures for the koloa maoli, ensuring them a haven for breeding. She additionally joined the Native Hawaiian Plant Society in its weekly undertaking of removing invasive plants and restoring native vegetation at the pond.

Kalalau helped to protect several other native bird species, including Hawai‘i’s state bird—the endangered nene (Hawaiian goose). At a DLNR nene release station at Hana‘ula in the West Maui Mountains, she assisted technicians with habitat management and restoration, as well as predator removal. She also worked on a salvage (i.e., nurture and release) team for fledgling Hawaiian petrels, which often become disoriented and imperiled by bright lights.

More recently, Kalalau traveled to the islet of Molokini and, as a member of a bird-banding team, marked fledgling shearwaters in underground nests to track future survival rates. According to DLNR wildlife biologist John Medeiros, who supervised her on this and other projects, Kalalau played an integral part of the group. “It’s a tough job,” he says. “You really have to get down on your knees and dig deep in the sand, and she was covered with flies and biting ants. She did an excellent job.”

Kalalau plans to use her Americorps educational allowance pursuing environmental studies at Maui Community College this year. Her goal is a career in wildlife or resource management.

Americorps, a nationwide association of public-service organizations, has put people like Kalalau to work since its inception in 1993. Much of Americorps’s service on Maui involves environmental tasks.

“It’s a great program,” says Kalalau, “ and they’re always looking for more help. You just have to be passionate about the environment.”

Medeiros hopes that Kalalau’s work with Americorps will set a good example for local teens to help save Maui’s natural resources and possibly pursue a career in the field. “We don’t have enough local recruitment,” he says. “With someone like Jenna, you know you’re getting someone who loves the island, rather than someone who is looking to use the job as a stepping-stone to somewhere else.

“Jenna really loves the job,” he adds. “I could use more people like her.”

For more information on Americorps, visit its Web site at www.americorps.org, or call Donna Borge of MEO Youth Bank at (808) 873-3101.
• DLNR website: www.hawaii.gov/dlnr
• Native Hawaiian Plant Society Web page: www.angelfire.com/hi4/nhps/index.html.

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