A Cry for Help from Kealakehe

posted in: February 2006 | 0

Aupaka czar. You won’t find a job description for this post among the thousands of positions listed with the state Department of Human Resources Development. But if the wahine noho kula, or aupaka (Isodendrion pyrifolium) is to be preserved into the next year, to say nothing of the next generation, perhaps the Legislature should authorize exactly such a position and hire someone to fill it ASAP.

What would a czar do? Stop the bulldozers that have ripped up precious natural areas. Put up fences and walls to protect the rare plants. Have the power to stop work on any and all development in the area until everyone involved understood what was at stake and undertook appropriate measures. Know and keep track of each and every plant, whether growing wild, outplanted, or in a nursery.

When it comes to urgency, the need to act now to save the aupaka from extinction is right up there with the (apparently) failed mission to bring the last po`ouli into captivity. The known wild population of the bird was three when the rescue was launched; the known wild population of aupaka is three. And that is where the similarities end.

So far, the aupaka has received little of the publicity given to the charismatic bird (and what publicity the plant has received has often been negative, as its discovery forced delays in construction of a high school). And the dollars spent to help the aupaka and the other botanical treasures of Kealakehe in their fight against habitat loss, invasive weeds, fires, wayward bulldozers, and other threats don’t amount to a hill of beans when stacked up against the millions spent on the po`ouli.

Absent a binding, forceful mitigation plan, public agencies have paid little more than lip service to the notion that the remnant dry forest of Kealakehe deserves to be protected. Worse yet, one of the chief offenders has been the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands; as an office whose chief purpose is to benefit Hawaiians and preserve their culture, so closely tied to the native flora, one might hope it would be more aggressive in making sure its contractors respected the native plants in the area. Although the agency claims that it is following the unsigned mitigation plan, the fact that its contractors’ bulldozers have encroached onto rare plant preserves not once, but twice in one year points to a flaw — either in the plan or in its implementation, or in the will of the agency to carry it out.

Consider the obstacles the little plant faces. Fountain grass and koa haole are ubiquitous and may rob it of water. Destruction of other native trees may make it harder for seeds to germinate and flourish. The locomotive driving development in the name of so many worthy social causes – affordable housing, schools, parks, hospitals, and the infrastructure and commercial centers to support it all – is practically unstoppable. Add to the mix the threat of fire and, sad to say, vandalism, and odds for recovery of the aupaka and so many other native Hawaiian species are, frankly, not looking so good.

Under the best circumstances, an aupaka czar would face a Sisyphean task. But unless someone is given the authority to act in meaningful ways to protect these plants, the woman of the plains will dwell there no longer.

* * *
Conflicted Commissioner
Should Leave the Room

Meredith Ching didn’t get to be vice president of Alexander & Baldwin by shying away from controversy. But what works in the corporate world doesn’t always translate into responsible behavior in the realm of public policy. And, as a member of the state Commission on Water Resource Management, Ching should be keenly aware of the different standards that apply to her service on that body, as opposed to her labors on behalf of A&B.

Unfortunately, she isn’t. Although she has properly recused herself from the dispute over Maui streams described elsewhere in this issue, she seems to think that recusal applies only to the vote itself. Ching has continued to be involved in commission discussions of the dispute, seeming at times to try to guide it into channels leading to a favorable outcome for A&B, whose subsidiary, HC&S, is a party to the fray.

Kapua Sproat, an attorney with Earthjustice, which represents groups that have protested the apparent waste of stream water, lodged a protest after the commission’s January meeting. “Earthjustice and our clients are concerned that Commissioner Ching’s questions during yesterday’s Water Commission’s briefing on the [dispute] created the appearance of impropriety,” she wrote. “The questions that Commissioner Ching posed – e.g., asking why ‘shouldn’t’ off-stream use studies be conducted in addition to instream use studies to enable the ‘balancing’ between the two uses – could be interpreted as supporting existing diversions by HC&S and other off-stream water users. A commissioner recused due to a conflict of interest should not interject any comments during proceedings, much less comments ostensibly favoring a particular viewpoint.”

Sproat went on to ask that Ching “physically excuse herself from meetings, even during non-action items.” Other board members – notably Tim Johns, of the Board of Land and Natural Resources – leave the room when the board or commission on which they sit discusses matters that pose a conflict of interest. It is not asking too much of Ching to follow their lead. By her refusal, she casts a pall of illegitimacy over whatever outcome the commission may reach.

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