Storm Iselle Puts to Rest Debate Over Threat Potential of Albizia

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By the time it reached Hawai`i island, Hurricane Iselle was barely hanging on to its status as a hurricane, with maximum sustained winds of 74 miles per hour.

And yet it managed to turn large swaths of the rural district of Puna, on the southeastern quadrant of the island, into what appear from the air to be giant piles of kindling sticks. Those sticks are invariably trunks of albizia trees, anywhere from a foot to five feet in diameter.

For years, as the albizia grew taller, spreading their canopies over some of the most important arterial highways in the district, legislators and policy-makers seemed to regard the threat from the trees as a back-burner issue. This past legislative session, in fact, a bill that would have allotted $5 million to remove overhanging albizia branches from roadways that were critical for emergency services got just one hearing before the House Water and Land Committee before it sank into legislative oblivion. A similar fate befell another bill that would have appropriated funds to the Civil Defense Division of the state Department of Defense allowing it to exercise its authority to remove hazardous trees and branches from private property.

No one has yet come up with a cost estimate of the damages caused by albizia trees felled by the storm. In addition to the costs that will be borne by state taxpayers, county taxpayers, and electric rate-payers, there are the untold costs of private homeowners who had to clear their own roads (hundreds of miles of roads in Puna are owned and maintained by private community associations), homeowners and renters who lost homes, furnishings, and food to damage from fallen trees, and, certainly not least, the wages and income lost when so many people could not get to their jobs for days or weeks.

In light of these losses, the proposed $5 million for albizia control was chump change.

Next Steps

Albizia is a threat not only to the Big Island, but, as many testified to the Legislature last session, it poses a danger to residents on all islands.

Flint Hughes, an expert on albizia with the U.S. Forest Service Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry, based in Hilo, spoke with Environment Hawai`i about the damage wrought by albizia in Puna. “After we finish cleaning up – and that’s the big task right now, getting power, water back to people – the next step will be sitting down with folks, asking how we can keep this from happening again, how can we protect neighborhoods from this tree,” he said.

“It dawned on me that if all those areas that were damaged by albizia, if we had `ohi`a around those areas, I don’t think we would have seen the kind of damage that we see now.”

There’s a need, he said, “to pursue all the options” to control albizia – “and do so in a determined fashion.”

That includes funds to remove those trees that pose immediate threats to houses and transportation, poison trees that are potential seed sources, and, given how ubiquitous albizia are, develop biocontrol measures.

The Hawai`i Invasive Species Council has awarded funds to the Forest Service to begin the search for biocontrol agents, Hughes said, but it is a long, expensive process. “A colleague mentioned that there is a pathogen, a rust, that’s doing an incredible number on albizia plantations in Southeast Asia,” Hughes said, “but that doesn’t mean it would be a safe thing for Hawai`i.”

Hughes has been involved with several communities in Puna and Hilo that have recognized albizia’s danger. He and James Leary of the University of Hawai`i College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources devised a method of killing mature albizia trees using a few drops of Milestone herbicide and a hatchet. The cost per tree is about half a dollar’s worth of chemical and around $3 worth of labor. The treated albizia die slowly, shedding branches gradually until all that remains is a tall snag. “It just kind of crumbles in place,” says Julie Tulang of the community of Pi`ihonua above Hilo, where some 400 albizia were “euthanized” in a matter of a few hours.

Post Iselle

Since the storm hit, many Puna residents have been talking among themselves about the albizia problem. While before Iselle, some residents voiced opposition to the idea of getting rid of the albizia “tunnels” that arched over several major roads in the district, there’s no support for that view anymore.

To address the problem of landowners who allow the trees to grow unchecked on their land, one way is proposing an accelerating county tax on albizia. “Start with a two-year grace period,” he suggests, “then tax low, perhaps $10/tree/year, and double the fees every year. Chainsaws will be humming all over the island. Albizias will disappear.”

Albizia were not the only trees to fall in the storm. Trunks of schefflera, ironwoods, gunpowder trees, even `ohi`a can be seen lying along roadsides. But few would dispute that the albizia are largely to blame for the thousands of broken power lines, miles of blocked roads, and uncounted damaged buildings.

After years of inaction, some in Puna are confident the time for action is at hand. “For many like me money is a scarce resource,” writes one contributor to the Punatalk forum, “and spending thousands and thousands taking down trees just isn’t going to happen. It will take a combination of responsibility, community and support from the state and county to get them under control.”

Or, as Hughes put it, “If this storm doesn’t get us over that threshold, I don’t know what will. The impact is huge and personal and large-scale in terms of financial damage. I don’t see how any policy maker could ignore this any more.”

For Further Reading

Environment Hawai`i has reported extensively on the problems associated with albizia, including in these articles, available online at our website, [url=][/url]

“Legislature Balks at Biosecurity Bills, But Boosts Funds for Invasive Species,” June 2014;
“Behind Albizia’s Beauty Lurks a Multitude of Undesirable Traits,” July 2013;
“Albizia Makes Inroads in Native Forests of Puna,” February 2003.

Volume 25, Number 3 September 2014

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