A nearly $8 million project will take the Hawaiian approach to land management and apply it to busy parts of town.

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Backed by a new federal grant, a team of eight conservation groups is launching an effort to restore the natural watersheds in a mostly urban, developed part of Honolulu using traditional Hawaiian land management principles.

The $7.8 million project, funded through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, starts Thursday and is slated to last three years. If the effort succeeds, its participating groups hope it might serve as a model to restore native habitat across Honolulu.

“I see this as a way to take a huge step forward in restoration,” said Doug Harper, executive director of the nonprofit Malama Maunalua, which spearheaded the effort to secure the funds. The grant is part of a broader White House initiative dubbed Climate Ready Coasts.

coral reef
A dense East Honolulu neighborhood abuts a coral reef just offshore in the Wailupe watershed. The area will be part of a new, comprehensive ridge-to-reef restoration project. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022)

It will fund what’s called “ridge-to-reef” restoration, coordinated by Malama Maunalua and its partners, in three East Honolulu watersheds where the flatland areas are packed with hundreds of houses: Wailupe, Niu and Kuliouou.

The other partnering groups are Aloha Tree Alliance, Protect and Preserve Hawaii, Koolau Mountains Watershed Partnership, Inter-Fluve, Kuleana Coral Restoration, Roth Ecological Design International and the Hawaii Institute for Marine Biology.

Harper said it’s the biggest grant ever secured by Malama Maunalua, which has worked for the past 18 years to help restore coral in the east Oahu bay.

The multiyear funding gives the partners the stability to take a “bigger bite of the apple and go for more restoration faster, which is important because of the impending problems that will be coming because of climate change,” he added.  

Kuliouou Ridge hike Brenda Mallory
Local conservation groups brief Brenda Mallory, second from left, on their plans under a new $8 million federal grant while hiking Kuliouou Ridge. (Marcel Honore/Civil Beat/2023)

“For what I have seen, this is the first project that has gone ridge-to-reef in an area that’s predominantly urbanized,” Harper said.

Many community-driven restoration projects already occur regularly within urban Honolulu. But this is the first project involving large-scale, ridge-to-reef restoration, based on the Hawaiian ahupuaa land-management concept, that specifically targets an urban part of town, according to NOAA.

Its launch also comes as many residents in the Ala Wai watershed, just several miles to the west, discuss ways to restore the natural habitat in that heavily urban area, home to some 200,000 residents.

Some grassroots groups in that watershed, which includes Makiki, Palolo and Manoa, have implored the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to use habitat restoration in their ongoing flood control efforts there. The corps, however, has repeatedly rejected natural restoration for flood control there. It said the benefits of that approach during a major storm would be negligible.

Harper said he hopes the East Honolulu project could demonstrate a way for those community groups to eventually pursue that habitat restoration.

Such community-led restoration projects are critical in Hawaii because the state only devotes a sliver of its budget to natural resource protection, said Laurie Chang, Aloha Tree Alliance’s executive director.

She said the grant will help those local groups “fill the gap to do some of this important conservation work that the government cannot do alone.”

Last year, the Department of Land and Natural Resources received less than 1% of the state’s general fund revenues for its operations, according to DLNR. This year, it received just over 2%.

From The White House To Kuliouou Ridge

In the watersheds’ dense urban flatlands, the partnership will pursue various ways to minimize the heavy amount of water flowing into storm drains, which overwhelm the coral offshore during heavy storms.

They plan to work with homeowners and businesses to divert more water into streams instead, allowing the water to settle and slow down without harming coral, Harper said.

Meanwhile, representatives from the White House are paying attention to what the coalition plans to do.

Earlier this month, Brenda Mallory, President Joe Biden’s pick to chair the White House Council on Environmental Quality, toured the ridge-to-reef restorations covered under the NOAA grant.

Chang and Harper led Mallory and a NOAA entourage on a hike up the Kuliouou Ridge Trail to showcase Aloha Tree Alliance’s efforts to help restore the watershed. The group’s volunteers hike up Kuliouou on weekends to plant native trees and shrubs in large patches of land called “kipukas.”

The Hawaiian word can refer to islands of land surrounded by lava flows on the Big Island, according to Chang. The group has planted more than 1,500 trees and shrubs at more than 20 kipukas so far, according to Cailyn Schmidt, Aloha Tree Alliance’s operations manager.

Kuliouou wathershed
White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory, center, surveys the Kuliouou watershed as Aloha Tree Alliance Operations Manager Cailyn Schmidt, right, tells her about the area. (Marcel Honore/Civil Beat/2023)

The group aims to accelerate those efforts under the NOAA grant, she added.

Mallory also met with Kira Hughes, who directs the Coral Resilience Lab, part of the University of Hawaii’s Institute of Marine Biology. 

She used coral skeletons and glasses of water at varying temperatures to show Mallory how coral bleaching occurs — and the challenges that Hawaii’s coral populations face as climate change accelerates.

Hughes and Harper also showed Mallory samples of invasive algae and briefed her on Malama Maunalua’s community huki events to pull that algae from the bay’s imperiled and degraded coral. Huki means “pull” in Hawaiian.

Mallory said the ridge-to-reef project happening in East Honolulu is a great example of what the Biden administration wants to support in its efforts to address climate change.

“This is gold,” she said after touring the area.

Harper, meanwhile, said multiple factors would need to occur to make the project a success, including a reduction of runoff, corals that can survive bleaching, healthier forests and “a community that understands this interconnection.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation. 

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