A cemetery expansion plan in Kaneohe is jeopardizing the habitat of a rare species of damselfly unique to Hawaii.
The blackline damselfly is a small creature that seemingly everyone agrees is unique and spectacularly beautiful, with luminous, brightly colored eyes and bodies and intricately veined wings. It was added to the federal Endangered Species Act list in 2012.
The Kaneohe site is one of the blackline damselfly’s last remaining colonies on Oahu because they have disappeared in the Waianae range.
The cemetery’s developer and state land conservation officials say that the construction project, which calls for blasting a Kaneohe hillside to create 30 acres of additional cemetery space for Hawaiian Memorial Park, does not pose a risk to the damselflies.
Environmentalists, neighbors who oppose the project and federal officials, however, say that this is exactly the kind of development project that the Endangered Species Act is supposed to prevent.
Next month the issue will come before the state Land Use Commission for a decision. The owner of the cemetery, Service Corp. International, is seeking to change the zoning of land it owns on the hillside from “conservation” to “urban,” which would allow demolition of the site to proceed.
SCI is the nation’s largest end-of-life services company. It owns and operates 450 cemeteries and more than 1,500 funeral homes nationwide. It is also the largest funeral service provider in Hawaii. SCI executives say the expansion is needed because it needs more family burial plots.
The proposed construction site sits on a wild, steep hillside above a middle-class neighborhood, the Pikoiloa subdivision, and near Pohai Nani, a retirement community.
The existing cemetery, which is adjacent to the expansion site, is a scenic 80-acre manicured garden located about midway between Kaneohe and Kailua. It’s bounded by H-3 on one side and Kamehameha Highway on the other side.
In 2009, the Land Use Commission unanimously voted to turn down a similar expansion plan proposed by the cemetery. At that time, the commission ruled that the cemetery had not proven it needed the additional burial space and found that the plan did not adequately protect historic structures on the site.
SCI revised its plan substantially, eliminating an unpopular housing project and promising to turn over the historic structures on the site, including a 14.5-acre Hawaiian heiau, to cultural stewardship by a nonprofit organization.
Since the 2009 hearing, however, the unusual damselfly was discovered at the site. It had long been rumored to be present at the site by amateur entomologists who said they had spotted the insects there, but the sightings weren’t confirmed by experts until 2016.
Steven Lee Montgomery, a conservation biologist and beekeeper employed as a consultant for the cemetery, said he had also seen a number of damselflies at the site, which he called a breeding center for the insects.
“On a good sunny day, there were five, six, eight, mostly males, courting, looking for females who were interested,” he said.
The insects have established themselves in an unusual habitat there in a “seep,” not a stream, but where water flows slowly down the hill. Concrete structures that may have been used in the past in defunct agricultural operations have provided safe space for the damselflies to live and where they do not fall prey to predators like hungry fish.
Executives at Hawaiian Memorial Park and their consultant, Montgomery, do not believe that building on the site will have a harmful effect on the damselflies because they plan to introduce mitigation measures that will protect their habitat.
“Without the expansion and the associated preservation plan, the damselfly habitat would be at risk of deterioration due to lack of maintenance and species monitoring,” company spokesman Shane Peters said in an emailed statement.
Montgomery said that if the site were left unsupervised, there would be a risk of alien fish being transported to the area that would eat the damselfly larvae.
“It’s been fortunate that no well-meaning and uninformed person said there are too many mosquitoes here and put in guppies there,” he said. “Those fish would prey on the damselflies.”
He said there are also other colonies of blackline damselflies elsewhere on Oahu and that the Kaneohe site, although it exists at a lower elevation, is not unique.
State preservation officials agree that the cemetery’s mitigation plan is sufficient.
“My understanding is that a water line with a float valve that guarantees the water seepage will continue at the current rate should be sufficient to maintain the damselflies in this location,” said David Smith, administrator of the state’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife, a unit of the Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Federal officials, however, do not agree that the mitigation plan is adequate to protect the blackline damselfly. In a letter written to the cemetery planners in 2018 and again in 2019, federal officials issued a warning to the cemetery developers and officials at the Land Use Commission.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the applicant’s response was not “entirely acceptable” because it did not consider the potential risks involved with cutting into the slope above the habitat and moving the excess soil to lower areas to level off the ground.
“In particular, we retain concerns that extent and depth of slope grading, trenching, and filling upslope of the endangered damselfly habitat at this site has the potential to alter the local hydrology, potentially reducing or eliminating the outflow from the small spring on which the damselfly population depends,” wrote Gregory Koob, the agency’s deputy field supervisor, on Aug. 22.
Environmentalist Maxx Phillips, Hawaii director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the state’s willingness to allow the habitat of an endangered species to be disturbed in this way was dismaying.
“The inaction of the state is really confusing,” Phillips said. “Development of this type will affect the habitat.”
She called it an example of a “flipflop of the feds and the state,” where the feds seek to protect the environment where state officials do not.
“As a state we have a kuleana to our native species,” she said. “We have to take a hard line. If we don’t nobody will.”
Neighborhood activist Grant Yoshimori, who has been fighting the cemetery expansion for more than a decade, said he has repeatedly asked state and federal officials to do more than write letters about the risks to the damselfly habitat and instead to commit to testifying when the rezoning proposal goes before the commission in January.
“I would really like them to but they won’t,” he said.
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A Kailua girl, Kirstin Downey is a reporter for Civil Beat. A long-time reporter for The Washington Post, she is the author of "The Woman Behind the New Deal," "Isabella the Warrior Queen" and an upcoming biography of King Kaumualii of Kauai. You can reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.