If Sen. Mazie Hirono has her way, Hawaii’s native plant species — some of which teeter on the brink of extinction — may soon play a starring role in federal land management. 

New legislation introduced in the Senate last week by Hirono and three Democratic colleagues calls for the use of native plants in projects such as roadside landscaping or landfill restorations on federal lands wherever possible. It also promotes the hiring of more botanists for U.S. Department of Interior projects ranging from environmental restoration to pollution abatement.

The proposal arrives on the heels of the announcement of the Trump administration’s plan to weaken key provisions of the Endangered Species Act. More than half the plants protected by the act are found only in Hawaii.

Botanist Steve Perlman of the Plant Extinction Prevention Program descends the cliffs of Kalalau Valley in Kauai in search of endangered native plants. A bill sponsored by Sen. Mazie Hirono would promote the use of native plants in federal land projects such as roadside landscaping. Bryce Johnson/FLUX Hawaii

National Tropical Botanical Garden President and CEO Chipper Wichman called the proposal “a bright spot” at a time when Washington politicians are launching a campaign to undermine the future of endangered species.

If passed into law, botanical research groups statewide, including the NTBG, stand to earn new funding opportunities and stronger tools for plant conservation through the creation of a botanical research grant program.

“Native plants play a crucial role in conserving and protecting our land, and are an important part of our culture,” Hirono said in a prepared statement.

Other states with abundant native flora that stand to benefit include California, Arizona and Florida.

Rakan Zahawi, director of the University of Hawaii Manoa’s Harold L. Lyon Arboretum, said the proposed law would boost the prevalence of native plantings in a range of routine projects ranging from roadway mitigations to landfill closures. This, in turn, could improve the habitat for native fauna and help return Hawaii’s landscape to a more natural aesthetic.

“Native species are part of what makes Hawaii so unique,” Zahawi said. “If you take that away Hawaii is going to be just another tropical place with generic tropical plants from all over the place. Even today, when you walk outside in many parts of the state, what you’re actually looking at 90 percent of the time are plants that are not native to that island.”

Dubbed the endangered species capital of the world, Hawaii is home to hundreds of varieties of threatened plants and animals. All told, 130 of the state’s 1,360 native plant species have already gone extinct. There are 236 native plant species in Hawaii that each have fewer than 50 plants remaining in the wild.

The loss of even one of these native plant varieties could disrupt climate stabilization, inhibit food production, thwart medicinal discovery or endanger pollinators. 

Although plants comprise the majority of entries on the federal endangered species list, they garnered less than 4 percent of federal funding allocated for these species in 2011.

Tissue culture specimen in the Lyon Arboretum micropropagation laboratory, where tissue cultures of rare and threatened plant species are stored. Hawaii is home to more than half of the plants in the country protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. Contributed by: Scott Nishi

“Humans depend on plants for, well, everything,” said Dustin Wolkis, seed bank and laboratory manager at the National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kauai. “The air we breathe, the food that we eat, our medicine, our clothes, our building materials. Even with all of that, people just see plants as the green backdrop to the world.”

In the conservation world, there’s a term for this human bias: plant blindness.

During a political season of environmental regulatory rollbacks, Wolkis said the odds seem to be stacked against the legislation’s passage. 

Still, the proposal’s significance, he said, will more likely rest in its ability to compel public attention to native plants and their global importance.

“What happens if we lose one species out of a million?” Wolkis said. “Well, ecological relationships are so complicated that we don’t really know the answer to that yet, but it’s possible that one particular plant is the cure to a disease. It’s possible that if you lose a plant, you lose a pollinator and this trickle-down effect keeps going and going. You run the risk of losing all that much more that we don’t understand yet.”

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