In a fight to save 11 beautiful old mature trees on the Noelani Elementary School campus in Manoa from being removed for a 7,500 square foot political payback building project, a memorable moment occurred a few days ago.

With sweat dripping off my face in the sweltering mid morning heat, I looked over our backyard wall to the school yard where I could hear the recess sounds of children’s voices. The kids were not running free as usual on the open playground. Instead they were huddled in the patchy shade of trees and under the eves of the building.

Only a few braved the heat to dash out momentarily onto the yellowed grass under a relentless and oppressive blazing sun. The principal stood on a rise above the playground surveying the scene from the shade of a tall lemon scented gum, one of several tree species slated for removal if the project proceeds.

We are at a planetary crossroads with global warming and there has never been a more important time to apply the adage to think globally act locally. A much more judicious approach to new building projects on public lands particularly when they impact school curriculum priorities, is urgently needed.

Revised rules under the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act, recently signed into law by the Gov. David Ige, stipulate that analysis and decision making about proposed projects which require an environmental assessment or EIS must incorporate considerations related to climate change. (Chapter 343 HRS HAR 11 Chapter 200.1). This is wise legal counsel for the DOE to take into consideration now not later when it will be too late.

Some of the storied trees at Noelani Elementary School in Manoa. Courtesy Ellen Sofio

At Noelani the many threatened trees include several gorgeous and much maligned African tulips, lemon scented eucalyptus and Cook pines. According to the Maui Invasive Species committee the magnificent “Flame” tree with its brilliant orange blossoms, only competes with other invasives at urban elevations and do not naturally grow at the higher elevations of native forest.

These trees have grown at their current locations on the campus for half a century. It is important to be aware that large mature trees are the most effective carbon sinks on the planet, literally the lungs of the Earth.

This in addition to their shade and general cooling benefits due to evapotranspiration, and their provision of food, habitat and flyway in this case for an array of bird species including kolea, Manu o ku, green parrots, red and Brazilian cardinals, melodic shama thrush and many others.

Efficient Carbon Sinks

Children and parents are being reassured by school authorities that the removed trees will be replaced by native tree species — specifically ohia lehua and loulu palms. Propagating natives is a worthwhile goal but should not be used as an excuse to destroy beautiful old mature canopy shade trees which are our most efficient carbon sinks.

It takes many years of growth before ohia can provide any significant shade canopy. Loulu palms are beautiful but do not provide the shade or the cooling of the surrounding environment provided by larger mature canopy trees.

After becoming alarmed by large spray painted X-marks on the trees several months ago, I sought clarification since there had been no notice to the community. The “Noelani Idea Center” was characterized at that time by new Noelani Principal Bryan Gusman as “a library extension maker space…but we don’t really know what we’re going to use the maker space for yet” and more recently by one parent as a “computer lab” project.

“These trees have grown at their current locations on the campus for half a century.”

This building is not needed at a school which already has its own library in addition to a large public library across the street and the capacity to provide at a fraction of the cost and carbon footprint, personal computers for every student in need.

A new “Special Report on Climate Change and Land” by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in Geneva recently highlighted how rise in global temperatures risks jeopardizing food security for the planet.

Organic agroforestry as an educational and land use priority is clearly the way forward for sustainability and food security for Hawaii and globally.

Mixed use of land for trees and growing organic produce will support more vegetable oriented diets and freedom from carcinogenic and carbon intensive oil waste product based pesticides and herbicides. It will also contribute towards the trillion tree planting goal recently touted by Swiss climate change ecologist Thomas Crowther as the most effective way to combat climate change.

Our public school lands should be stewarded according to curriculum priorities which will assist with planetary survival. Children can be invigorated, inspired and empowered right on their own school campuses to help while preparing to become effective caretakers of the planet.

Needlessly cutting down 11 old beautiful mature trees on a historic elementary school campus memorable for its lush tranquility for unwarranted building projects is the exact opposite of what we should to be doing in these turbulent times of ecosystem crisis.

As the proposing and approving agency for the Noelani Idea Center, the state Department of Education, with the fresh leadership of Christina Kishimoto, should acknowledge that this unnecessary high carbon footprint political payback building project which has not been pursued with the transparency required by law, does not serve the bests interests of either the local or the global community. She can help the entire community reprioritize by institutionalizing conservation goals within the DOE. Malama aina, for a sustainable future.

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