NARS Commission Asks for Details on Laupahoehoe Experimental Forest

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“The devil is in the details.” If that cliché was uttered once at the September meeting of the Natural Area Reserves System Commission, it was uttered a dozen times as commissioners thrashed out the implications of having the U.S. Forest Service establish what it calls an experimental tropical forest on about 12,000 acres of state land at Laupahoehoe, on the windward coast of the Big Island. Roughly two-thirds of the area lies within the Laupahoehoe Natural Area Reserve, where, as with all other such reserves statewide, activities are under the tight control of the NARS Commission.

Whether and under what conditions the experimental forest is established will ultimately be determined by the state Board of Land and Natural Resources. Yet the board would be unlikely to act without the commission first weighing in with its views on the subject. When the commission met in Hilo on September 7, its agenda included “discussion and action on the proposed implementation” of the memorandum of agreement between the Forest Service and the state for the two experimental tropical forests proposed for the Big Island – one at the rainy Laupahoehoe site, the other on the dry, leeward side of the island at Pu`u Wa`awa`a. As it turned out, however, no memorandum of agreement was available for review or discussion, and commissioners were left trying to fathom the contents of a draft MOA from comments by deputy attorney general Linda Chow and Boone Kauffman, director of the Forest Service’s Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry, based in Hilo.

In an interview later with Environment Hawai`i, Kauffman said he had hoped to reach a final agreement with the state on a shorter timeframe, “but because of everyone’s schedules, we didn’t quite finish the work as soon as we’d hoped to.”

According to Chow, figuring out how the commission’s authority could continue to be respected even as the Forest Service took over management of the Laupahoehoe Natural Area Reserve is one of the issues at the heart of ongoing negotiations between the state and attorneys from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of General Counsel, in Washington. Chow told commissioners that her office had reworked a draft agreement submitted by the USDA, and that the ball was back in the USDA’s court.

Commission chairman Dale Bonar, of the Maui Coastal Land Trust, questioned Chow whether she was intending to ask for the commission’s advice as the agreement progressed through draft stages to completion. Chow responded that while it “would be useful for the board [of Land and Natural Resources] to have the commission’s input before approving the final agreement, this isn’t a requirement.” In any case, Chow said, based on her past work with the commission and her knowledge of the role it plays in managing designated Natural Area Reserves, she was well-equipped to represent the commission’s interests adequately during the negotiations.

Commissioner Jim Jacobi, of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Biological Resources Division, said all the commission was doing was “trying to get clarity.”

“Under the present rules, the NARS Commission has to approve all activity” within the reserves, he noted. “Would this [the experimental forest] be a change?”

Chow said that under changes to NARS administrative rules now being proposed, the commission could delegate its authority to a representative, who would participate in reviewing and approving research proposals for the experimental forest. Still, she acknowledged that the memorandum of understanding could not be written in anticipation of a rule change, and had to be based on present rules – though with perhaps enough flexibility being written in to accommodate the proposed change in rules without necessitating a new agreement.

Kauffman explained that he anticipated all research proposals for the experimental forest would be vetted by an advisory committee, which would include representatives from the commission, the Land Board, the Forest Service, and probably the university community as well. Under the Forest Service proposal, Kauffman said, Laupahoehoe “would be a unique Natural Area Reserve. There would be an order of magnitude more science coming out of it than from any other NAR.”

No Stonewalling
Jacobi reminded Kauffman and others that the purpose of the NAR system was not to further science, but to protect and restore the most important natural areas remaining in Hawai`i. “NARS were not designed to be science laboratories,” he said. He noted that when the commission reviews research proposals, one of the first questions it is supposed to ask in its review is whether the work can be done elsewhere – and if it can be, the proposal is denied.

Lisa Hadway, the Big Island NARS administrator, told the commission of the potential conflicts that can arise between researchers and field managers. She cited the case of a coqui researcher in the Manuka Natural Area Reserve. While the researcher’s work helped NARS staff find and eradicate coqui populations in the reserve, at the same time, the researcher’s control plots were wiped out, creating a strain for a while between NARS staff and the scientist. “Will research projects [at the experimental forest] interfere with management?” Hadway asked.

Kauffman attempted to allay such concerns. It was always the intention of the Forest Service to use the Natural Area Reserve portion of the Laupahoehoe forest more as a control site than an area for experiments, he said. And of course, the overriding objective of the experimental forest would be restoration. “The memorandum of agreement already states that that would not occur,” Kauffman said, referring to conflicts between management and science. “It requires the parties to consult with one another… This is a conservation area, and it’s just not an issue that research would interfere with management.”

Bonar said that he saw the experimental forest as an “opportunity for leveraging funds” for research, “but I want to ensure it’s all done for the benefit of the land. I don’t know the issues of contention between the two drafts [of the memorandum of agreement], and don’t feel as though I can make a recommendation without that.”

Representing the Land Board chair Peter Young on the commission was Robert Masuda, deputy director of the Department of Land and Natural Resources. Masuda worked closely with Young in getting Governor Lingle to initiate the steps leading up to the USDA secretary approving the Hawai`i tropical forests. Masuda seemed surprised by the jurisdictional concerns raised by the commission. “The chair and myself saw this as a partnership that would bring forward more research,” he said. “I’m a bit embarrassed. We should have thought about Natural Area Reserve conflicts before.”

“Is Peter aware of this?” Masuda asked Chow. “Has he seen the drafts?”

“I don’t think so,” Chow replied.

“I look forward to learning more,” Masuda said. “I was just merrily going along,” unaware of the issues. “I don’t want to see the details keep us from getting the real job done,” he said. “We need to look at how we can do it rather than why we cannot.”

Several of the commissioners voiced their agreement, noting only that they sought to be clear on the role the commission would play. “The NARS Commission is not trying to stonewall this at all,” Jacobi said. “These are extremely unique biological diversity areas… We just need to figure out how to make it work.”

Bonar added, “We all want the same thing,” but noted he was unclear about exactly what staff was seeking from the commission. If it was a recommendation for approval of the memorandum of understanding, then commissioners would need to have a copy of it in hand well before their October 16 meeting. If the agreement is not ready by early October, he warned, it would have to await action until December, when the commission is scheduled to next meet.

A Bump in the Road
In February, the Board of Land and Natural Resources approved establishment of the experimental forest. At the time, Paul Conry, administrator of the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife, assured the board that under the partnership between the state and the Forest Service, the Forest Service would help pay for research crucial to managing the areas. The memorandum of understanding, he said, will spell out the roles of each partner, but generally the Forest Service would administer research activities while the state would continue with its land-management and resource-protection activities.

That same month, the NARS Commission approved the experimental forest in concept. Representatives of the Forest Service told the commission that the Laupahoehoe reserve would be a control site, with most of the experimental work and construction of supportive infrastructure being done outside the NAR boundary.

After whizzing through initial approvals earlier this year, the process seems to have slowed to a crawl by the September NARS Commission meeting. Kauffman was optimistic that a resolution is in the works.

“This is not unexpected,” he said a few days after the meeting, noting that people naturally become cautious “when you start to get down to the legal details of how we are going to manage something we don’t have here yet but which will be remarkably important for conservation in Hawai`i. People want to do it right and make sure everybody’s best interests are represented.”

“We have vast gaps in our understanding of how natural ecosystems function, and we really need the information that the experimental forest will provide,” he said. “And this will be a great partnership, involving land managers, the state, and researchers who will come here from throughout the world. But how do we get there? How do we make this marriage work and last forever?”

He did not see any show-stoppers at this point: “We’re too far along, and it’s too important for the future of Hawai`i forest research, education, and conservation not to move forward,” he said. “It’s a deliberative thing and will last a hundred years. A little patience is certainly worth the effort.”

— Patricia Tummons

Volume 17, Number 4 October 2006

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