Envision Something New And Different For The Lands Above Lahaina - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Authors

Michael Buck

Michael Buck is a former Hawaii State Forester and Water Commissioner. He holds a masters of science in forest conservation and tropical agriculture.

Peter Adler

Peter Adler is a planner and mediator with a particular focus on issues that involve challenging technical and public policy challenges.

Transforming fallow agricultural lands into a landscape resistant to wildfires and replete with water, trees and food must become a strategic goal.

Editor’s note: This is the first of two Community Voices from the authors on a risk-reduction roadmap for Hawaii following the wildfires. Read the second part here.

At the moment everyone’s attention is riveted on the horrific losses and pain incurred by the people of Lahaina. Like so many others, our hearts and minds are with them.

But we also know this: In crisis, there is opportunity. The Lahaina firestorm was and is a wakeup call.

While aiding residents and rebuilding the city is a first priority, now is exactly the right moment to start envisioning something new and different for the lands above Lahaina’s urban corridor.

If we do it well, we can simultaneously create a model and roadmap for other locales in Hawaii which are now sensitive to their own fire risks.

Here are some key lessons we take from August the 8th.

The Fire Need Not Have Been So Severe

The extensive Western Maui Community Wildfire Protection Plan identified Lahaina as a bullseye for extreme fire risk in 2014. In the five years between 2015 and 2020, the overall acreage of planted crops statewide decreased by 21%, or 31,207 acres.

The large decline on Maui was primarily due to the 2016 closure of the Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Co., which removed 38,810 acres of sugarcane production from the state.

The much desired shift from plantation to diversified agriculture has been slow, resulting in more wildfire threats from flammable invasive grasses on West Maui and statewide. Without further action, these threats will be amplified and surely increase in the future driven by a less favorable climate and episodic dry spells.

Wildfires Don’t Respect Boundaries

We know with certainty that thousands of acres of former sugar and pineapple lands on West Maui harbored flammable grasses and invasive weeds that helped fuel the Aug. 8 firestorms. Transforming fallow agricultural lands into a landscape more defensive of future wildfires and more productive of water, trees, and food must now become a serious strategic goal.

Many of the lands in the affected areas of West Maui are owned by large and mid-sized landowners, including the state of Hawaii. In the future, no landowner, public or private, should for any reason continue maintaining large tracts of flammable grasses and weeds that threaten the lives and properties of nearby citizens.

Under a phased reentry plan, residents along Kaniau Road, straight street running perpendicular to Honoapiilani Highway, were allowed to return starting Sept. 25, 2023. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
The lands above Lahaina are ripe for a new vision. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

New Kind Of Landscape-Level Thinking Required

The large blocks of land above Lahaina afford an opportunity to identify a comprehensive, long-term landscape strategy. The jump-off is a well-informed “North Star” strategy that can serve as a collective ambition for further public and private implementation.

To succeed, the recovery of West Maui’s land and water needs a bigger approach that is not initially constrained by ownership and jurisdiction boundaries, not dominated by the usual development versus conservation squabbles, or drowned out by the perpetual chorus lines of “No Can.”

In many successful private sector enterprises, a North Star represents a company’s steadfast definition of its purpose, products, and customers. Clarity about a North Star informs goals and leads to concrete actions.

Once we have that, it becomes a beacon, a way to assess and eventually reward tradeoffs, and create an integrated package of incentives, penalties, and regulations that can be improved.

Time Is A Collective Enemy

As evidenced by Lahaina and the experience of wildland firefighters in Hawaii and other locales, we have a three- to five-year window before invasive grasses again take over and become serious fire threats.

The shortest-term solution to weeds and exotic grasses is grazing sheep and goats within fenced areas that exclude a smart network of “green” integrated fuel-breaks located around utility corridors and wildland/urban interfaces.

Longer term, sequential reforestation and the planned future use of lands for appropriate agriculture become vehicles to both stabilize soils and prevent fire hazards.

Increasing Available Water Can Be Achieved

We can increase West Maui’s available water by enhancing and expanding the forested watershed and investing in repairs and modernized maintenance of the century-old plantation era water storage and delivery systems.

Department of Land and Natural Resources staff have identified water infrastructure improvements that can potentially increase up to 15 million gallons of available water per day, which includes using recycled water for irrigation and fire protection.

Using the Lahaina fire tragedy to ignore history is short-sighted.

Connecting streams flowing from the mountains to the sea are good for people, animals, and plants. Hawaii’s constitution and evolving water law reinforces the proposition that water is a public trust and not to be controlled by any one set of private interests.

Using the Lahaina fire tragedy to ignore history is short-sighted and will interfere with rebuilding the affected communities on Maui. In fact, restoring West Maui’s older wetland agricultural systems will increase aquifer recharge and provide additional water storage. This can heal some current wounds and prevent future ones.

We Know How To Do This

Stronger fireproofing and more robust land recovery strategies are not mysterious or rocket science. In Hawaii, we have the expertise, and now the opportunity, to focus on achieving landscape level ambitions.

Consider the West Maui Watershed Partnership that has brought together a diversity of public and private landowners for a common purpose and vision to protect our water supply. Their work can be amplified.

We also learned from the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s navigators to always visualize the destination before starting a voyage. Those capable watermen and waterwomen demonstrated that the challenge is not impossible.

Articulating a landscape destination is the first step to a far more productive and fire-resilient landscape.

Coming Monday: How to create the North Star.

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.

Read this next:

How To Turn A ‘North Star’ Plan For Fire-Prone Lands Into Reality

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About the Authors

Michael Buck

Michael Buck is a former Hawaii State Forester and Water Commissioner. He holds a masters of science in forest conservation and tropical agriculture.

Peter Adler

Peter Adler is a planner and mediator with a particular focus on issues that involve challenging technical and public policy challenges.

Latest Comments (0)

Thank you for writing this article. Hoping the large and mid-sized landowners and all in government on Maui and the state read it and act on it ASAP.

MMP · 1 month ago

"Please don’t make me repeat myself"-HistoryLahaina, Maui, and the State of Hawaii have a one-time opportunity to re-create a non-colonial original Hawaiian terrain similar to the remaining original terrain of the Big Island.

Aldi · 1 month ago

Great ideas. Odysseus had his home land of Ithica as his North Star. Took him ten years with many obstacles--one-eyed cyclops with no perpective and many sorcerers with spells of instant gratification to disract him from his destination. His final obstacle was 101 suiters who "settled in his house"that he had to purge. For Lahaina, and our Hawaii Nei to come home we need the visionary leadership and courage to face our monsters with a trust in our stars. All aboard!

JM · 1 month ago

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