Put Ecological Restoration At The Center Of Lahaina's Recovery - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Authors

David Wilcove

David Wilcove is professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and public affairs at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, and a trustee of the Doris Duke Foundation.

Sacha Spector

Sacha Spector is program director for the environment at the Doris Duke Foundation, New York, NY.

Léa Major

Léa Major is acting director of the Doris Duke Foundation’s Shangri La Museum on Oahu.

And Native Hawaiian voices must lead this conversation.

As rescue crews continue to recover the bodies of people killed by the flames that consumed Lahaina, people in Hawaii and throughout the nation are asking tough questions about the causes of this terrible tragedy.

While much attention will be focused on any failures of the emergency response system and the need for more resilient construction, the role that degradation of Hawaii’s unique natural environment played in making this disaster so deadly must be recognized. And we need to focus attention on how restoring that natural environment can decrease the likelihood of such tragedies in the future.

In fact, there was a literal canary in the coal mine for years: Hawaii’s globally unique and imperiled birds. Regarded by scientists as a far more remarkable example of evolution than Darwin’s finches of the Galapagos Islands, these birds have been driven to near extinction by three forces: the loss of habitats due to human encroachment, rising global temperatures, and invasive plant and animal species, including malarial mosquitos that thrive at higher temperatures and who have passed their deadly diseases to birds.

A kiwikiu at home. The Maui fires demonstrated the serious threat not just to humans but wildlife. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2013)

Thanks to these beyond disconcerting factors, unique birds like the akikiki and kiwikiu have seen their populations reduced to a mere handful. Survivors of these once abundant species now occupy a few acres of forest, plus the Maui Bird Conservation Center’s captive breeding facility, that, thanks to the heroic efforts of their staff, was spared from the worst of the fires.

What the fires have demonstrated at a horrific human cost is that these same forces are threatening more than just rare birds — they are a threat to us, too. In a state that most of the world think of as a tranquil paradise, an accelerating combination of climate change, loss of native habitats, and the spread of invasive species is merging to put the people of Hawaii at grave risk.

Before the forcible colonial possession of Hawaii, the royal community of Lahaina was built amidst a complex of lagoons and wetlands. This watery mix of habitats supported aquaculture and kalo farming and supplied freshwater to the inhabitants.

Those lagoons and wetlands would have slowed the recent fires, but they have been largely lost to development and reengineered shorelines.

Moreover, the invasive grasses that fueled the fires, originally brought to Hawaii by ranchers for pasture fodder, spread as sugar cane plantations were abandoned due to changing market conditions. Today, these prolific and flammable grasses cover a quarter of the dry land in the Hawaiian Islands.

This ecological time bomb made it just a matter of time before a disaster of this magnitude occurred. In fact, over the past several years Hawaii has quietly seen the same percent of its land consumed by fire as the forests of the western U.S. mainland — a region that receives far greater public attention.

As Hawaii and the nation look toward recovery, rebuilding, and long-term resilience, ecological restoration must be at the center of those efforts.

First, the federal government has to step up. FEMA already estimates that rebuilding Lahaina will cost more than $5 billion. That price tag is sure to climb and must include significant investments to restore native habitats like forests and wetlands.

This can build on the state’s leadership in setting ambitious conservation goals. Hawaii has committed to conserving at least 30% of its land and coastal waters by 2030, to restoring native habitats, and to increasing tree canopies in disadvantaged and heat-vulnerable communities by 40%. Federal support must prioritize helping Hawaii meet these targets as fast as possible.

Harmonious Relationship

Second, the local community must come together to support those who are seeking to restore the once-harmonious relationship between Native Hawaiian populations and the natural habitat. This includes rebuilding traditional fishponds, reestablishing native food forests, and replanting native forests.

We at Doris Duke Foundation, which includes our center at Shangri La on Oahu, have supported organizations like Āina Momona, Mauna Kea Watershed Alliance, and the Makauwahi Cave Reserve to undertake this type of work. More can and must be done.

It’s time to make a choice.

Third, Native Hawaiian voices must lead this conversation. It is the Kanaka Maoli (indigenous Hawaiians), who possess the history, knowledge, and understanding of their ancestral homes — their Aloha ʻĀina — needed to craft the most forward-thinking and ecologically sound recommendations for the rebuilding of Hawaii. This is true of indigenous communities across the U.S., who for far too long have been ignored or impeded in decisions about their ancestral lands.

Hawaii’s endangered birds have long been showing us what our alternative futures could look like: one of loss and danger, in which indigenous species are gone, native ecosystems are supplanted by combustible wastelands, and the wisdom of Hawaii’s native population is set aside; or one of life and resilience, where forests and communities like Lahaina have been restored, where those who have lived for hundreds of years on this essential archipelago are respected and listened to, and where people and nature coexist.

It’s time to make a choice. With funding, bold action, and Native Hawaiian leadership, Hawaii can demonstrate that the best way to protect people is to restore nature.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

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About the Authors

David Wilcove

David Wilcove is professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and public affairs at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, and a trustee of the Doris Duke Foundation.

Sacha Spector

Sacha Spector is program director for the environment at the Doris Duke Foundation, New York, NY.

Léa Major

Léa Major is acting director of the Doris Duke Foundation’s Shangri La Museum on Oahu.

Latest Comments (0)

While I sympathize with the articles thoughts, western thoughts on private property is sancrosant especially backed by capital. It is codified in American laws and culture. Look deep enough and that will take precedence over any plans afoot.T

oldsurfa · 2 weeks ago

This is absolutely essential. Why would anyone want to rebuild a town in the exact same eco-system that burned it down in the first place? Start with reconstructing the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1892 and go from there.

Srfnff · 2 weeks ago

Respectfully, it is fashionable to invoke the traditional knowledge of the kanaka maoli as a key to solving our environmental problems. But they do not necessarily have any special insights or experience in restoring our abandoned sugar fields. They do not have, and no one else has, experience dealing with rapid climatic change. In the Pacific there is deep memory of fluctuating sea levels but it was a time of displacement and conflict, not necessarily of knowledge gained on how to deal with the present. In agriculture, their fishponds and Kona agriculture was brilliant but how much can be applied to today?

Bothrops · 2 weeks ago

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