Commissioners Lambast NEON Reps for Surprise Selection of NAR Site

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“I’m appalled,” state Natural Area Reserves System commissioner Sheila Conant said at the commission’s August meeting, referring to the U.S. Forest Service’s and NEON, Inc.’s (short for National Ecological Observatory Network) failure to consult the commission before deciding to build an observatory within the Laupahoehoe NAR, on the windward side of the Big Island.

Noting that the Forest Service had failed to inform NEON that the proposed observatory site was within a NAR, NEONS’s Henry Loescher told Conant, “We are, too …We’ll own it, but we’re in shock, too.”

After working with the Forest Service and the University of Hawai`i, NEON, a non-profit organization supported by the National Science Foundation, announced in early 2007 that it had selected the Laupahoehoe Forest Unit of the Hawai`i Experimental Tropical Forest (HETF) as a candidate for its Pacific neotropical site, one of 20 core long-term ecological data collection sites throughout the nation.

Apparently, the NARS Commission didn’t get the message.

It wasn’t until May 26 that NEON unveiled its plans to the NARS Commission, which was surprised to say the least. The commission is responsible for making recommendations to the state Board of Land and Natural Resources on activities within all NARs and is supposed to participate in reviewing NAR-related projects within the experimental forest, which is managed by the Forest Service.

NEON proposes to build a 100-foot tower and install underground power lines in the NAR, and take soil samples from the area. Some structures, such as the tower, would remain in place for 20 years, others only five. NEON’s core site would be built near the proposed Pacific Southwest Research Station – Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry Laupahoehoe Research and Education Center (LREC), which will be located on state land outside the NAR. NEON also plans to have data collection sites in the Pu`u Wa`awa`a section of the HETF.

According to minutes of the May NARS Commission meeting, the tower is the facility’s largest component and will include an instrument hut, boardwalks, and grid power, among other things.

“This is not just a simple tower,” the minutes state.

The project is estimated to cost $8.6 million, including $7 million for the tower and power to the site. NEON representatives said that construction was expected to begin in 2012.

Although NEON’s consultant, CH2MHill, released a draft environmental assessment in late August covering the entire NEON project, commissioner Rebecca Alaka`i noted that because the project will use state lands, a state EA also needs to be done.

In response to concerns expressed by commissioners about the power lines, NEON representative Jody Boylard said the site would require more power than could be generated by solar panels and would need to be connected to the electricity grid. Still, commissioner Patrick Conant noted that the road to the site, Blair Road, “is a long way up,” according to the meeting minutes. He was also reported to have expressed concern about minimizing damage. Hawai`i island NARS manager Lisa Hadway also noted that in addition to being within the NAR, the tower site and the road lie within the protective subzone of the Conservation District (construction within the Conservation District typically requires a use permit from the Land Board). She also said that endangered plant and animal species inhabit the project area.

Despite the commission’s and NARS staff concerns about the potential damage to the Laupahoehoe NAR, Boylard and the Forest Service’s Christian Giardina explained that the site was selected for very specific reasons. Boylard said that access via the road was a key factor, while Giardina added that the site’s topography and air flow across the landscape also made it an ideal site.

Even so, Sheila Conant was far from sold on the project. She noted that when the HTEF was first proposed a few years ago for Laupahoehoe, including the NAR, there were heated discussions about how some of the experiments would affect the NAR.

[N]othing like construction in the NAR was mentioned, so this is a big surprise to us today. Make sure this is not the only place you want to do this,” she warned NEON. Other commissioners instructed NEON to keep the NARS in the loop from now on.

Commissioner Jim Jacobi acknowledged that the project would undoubtedly collect valuable ecological information, but he questioned why the Forest Service didn’t bring the project to the commission sooner. He said he thought a presentation should have come before the commission more than a year ago.

At the commission’s August meeting, when asked again if the tower could be built outside the NAR, NEON’s Loescher, once more citing the area’s desirable wind flow, suggested it would be unlikely, especially since NEON plans to complete its final design review next month. Even so, Hadway said she has been “the thorn in the side of NEON,” trying to get CH2MHill to amend the language in its environmental assessment to allow for some flexibility, should the NARS site prove infeasible.

To deal with issues raised by the NEON project, the commission voted to establish a subcommittee, consisting of Sheila Conant, Flint Hughes (who also works for the Forest Service), Alaka`i, and Jacobi.

The 1,000-page environmental assessment for the entire NEON project can be found at [url=http://neoninc.org/sites/default/files/NEONEA_Aug28.pdf]http://neoninc.org/sites/default/files/NEONEA_Aug28.pdf[/url] The comment period ended September 28.

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NARS Eyes Kulani Site

As part of its expansion program, the NARS is looking to add to the system nearly 7,000 acres of forest surrounding the Kulani Correctional Facility, a large part of which has been fenced and ungulate-free for years. This past summer, the state Department of Public Safety announced that it would close the facility in an effort to cut costs. Although the state Department of Defense has also proposed using some portion of the property for a military-style rehabilitation program for teens, the NARS Commission voted at its August meeting to seek a Division of Forestry and Wildlife review of a proposal to add the Kulani lands, which some commissioners believe include some of the best native forest on the island.

The proposed NAR parcel, which does not include the 500 or so acres that the correctional facility occupies, is adjacent to the state’s 12,106-acre Pu`u Maka`ala NAR and to Kamehamena Schools’ Keauhou Ranch. All three properties are part of the Ola`a-Kilauea Partnership, a natural resource management initiative, which also includes lands owned or managed by Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park, Kamehameha Schools, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Service, the U.S.D.A. Forest Service, and The Nature Conservancy of Hawai`i.

If DOFAW supports the addition and if the state DOD has no objections, the commission will likely forward the proposal to the state Board of Land and Natural Resources for final approval.

At the same meeting, the commission recommended forwarding for Land Board approval a proposal to add Moloka`i’s 261-acre `Ilio Point to the NARS or to designate it as a wildlife sanctuary, and add a 5,800-acre parcel known as Tract 22 to the Kahauale`a NAR on Hawai`i island.

— Teresa Dawson

Volume 20, Number 4 October 2009

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