At Kealakehe, Kona, a Death Watch As Native Species Slide to Extinction

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The hot midday sun of a Kona summer beat down on Jill Wagner as she leapt into her car and began frantically punching numbers into her cell phone. At the same time, she circled the vacant land opposite Kealakehe High School, searching for the person responsible for the bulldozer that was tearing a path through the `a`a lava, flattening the fountain grass, koa haole, and occasional native plant or tree that still dotted the landscape.

By the time Wagner, a horticulturist with the Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park, tracked down the trucks of Fewell Geotechnical Engineering, the bulldozer operator had already crashed through a low rock wall and was headed straight for a plant that Wagner had come to check on that day – a small shrub covered after unseasonal summer rains in a thick coat of healthy green foliage.

Wagner screeched to a halt, raced to the engineers, and demanded that they order the dozer operator to stop at once. By the time he complied, he had come within two feet of one Isodendrion pyrifolium plant and within six feet of another. To Hawaiians, the plant was known as wahine noho kula; it and three other species in the same genus were together known as aupaka.

Lisa Hadway, a botanist with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, was attending a meeting in Waimea when she learned of the wayward bulldozer. Immediately, she phoned a DLNR enforcement officer and sped to Kealakehe to meet him at the site.

“We walked over to where we saw a large ‘dozer,” Hadway wrote in a report of her trip. From Chet Robinson of Fewell Geotechnical Engineering, they learned that he had been searching for five sites that had been marked by a previous contractor as areas where boring should be done, in preparation for a housing development immediately to the east of the designated aupaka preserve. Robinson, she continued, “had difficulty finding two of the surveyed sites, so had the dozer drive around to look for them. This is when the dozer dipped far into the Aupaka Preserve.”

Wagner describes the event as “heartbreaking… Some of the native community has been destroyed, and a lot of those plants were very old.”

The stakes for the aupaka were even higher. Had the bulldozer operator cruising the slopes of Kealakehe on August 24, 2005, uprooted the two plants instead of just missing them, the world’s known population of naturally occurring wahine noho kula – the woman dwelling in the plains – would have been reduced to exactly one.

Good Intentions
In 1986, the state of Hawai`i was confronted with a crisis in affordable housing. To address the problem, it began considering areas of state land that might be suitable for low-cost, high-density development. On the west coast of the island of Hawai`i, the agencies involved – the Department of Accounting and General Services, the Department of Land and Natural Resources, and the Housing Finance and Development Corporation – looked at three potential sites. Lalamilo, near Kawaihae, was the northernmost. In the middle was Kalaoa. And furthest south was Kealakehe, on the outskirts of Kailua, the commercial center of West Hawai`i.

Based on projections of population growth and proximity to a planned sewage treatment plant, Kealakehe was selected. The site consisted of about 800 acres of gently sloping scrub land, covered for the most part in fountain grass and low koa haole. It had been grazed for a century or more. Archaeological surveys disclosed several important sites at the mauka (upland) boundary of the parcel, but the area was thought to be free of rare plants.

A botanist surveying the area in 1989, however, found 19 uhiuhi trees (Caesalpinia kavaiensis). While this represented more than a 40 percent jump in the known population of fewer than 50 plants worldwide, the discovery was not a show-stopper. Less than a year later, an environmental impact statement for a planned community of some 3,000 to 4,000 housing units, a golf course, a high school, and other amenities was accepted by the governor. Within a year, the Board of Land and Natural Resources had authorized turning the land over to HFDC and one of the largest public housing projects in the state’s history was under way.

Dealing with the uhiuhi, a federally listed endangered species, posed special problems. The public golf course was designed not only for the convenience of duffers in the West Hawai`i area, but was an integral component of the new wastewater treatment plant that was being developed and built with a large infusion of funds from the Environmental Protection Agency. The county, which was building the $42-million treatment plant on the makai side of Queen Ka`ahumanu Highway, below the area proposed for what would become the Villages of La`i`opua development, planned to dispose of the treated wastewater by using it to irrigate the links, with water hazards doubling as holding ponds.

As a result of the EPA’s financing of the effluent disposal system, the Fish and Wildlife Service conducted formal consultation, as called for in the Endangered Species Act, on the impact of the sponsored action on the rare plants. By the end of August 1990, the service concluded the consultation by urging adoption of a series of actions described in the environmental impact statement for the Kealakehe development. All trees were to be protected in place, with a five-acre preserve established for a cluster of eight uhiuhi in the upper area of the development, and 11 half-acre preserves for each of the 11 remaining plants. Weed-control measures would be undertaken within the reserves to reduce the risk of fire and encourage new growth. A mitigation plan was to be developed that included a plan for propagating uhiuhi, and “an escrow fund for the long-term preservation of endangered and candidate endangered species with start-up funds ‘not to exceed $100,000’” was proposed in the EIS, wrote Ernest Kosaka of the Fish and Wildlife Service in concluding the consultation.

But in late July of 1991, botanists conducting further surveys in the area designated for the golf course had a “eureka” moment. “No federal or state endangered species were found within the specified survey sites,” lead botanist Ken Nagata wrote in his report to the state. “However, four individuals of Isodendrion pyrifolium were discovered within the 150’ corridor of the 3rd hole. One is approximately 10’ mauka of center line and three are approximately 30’ mauka… Isodendrion pyrifolium was last collected in 1870 and because it was thought to be extinct for the past 120 years it has never been proposed as an Endangered Species.”

Additional surveys eventually identified 69 aupaka plants and several Nothocestrum breviflorum, or `aiea trees. The number of individual `aiea trees, valued by Hawaiians for its extremely hard wood, stood at roughly 50 before the survey at Kealakehe. Over the next year, both species were proposed for inclusion on the Fish and Wildlife Service’s list of endangered plants. Additionally, several Bidens micrantha ssp. ctenophylla, or ko`oko`olau, were found, representing only the second known population. One halapepe, Pleomele hawaiiensis, was discovered, lifting the known population of this plant to 241 individuals. Later still, maiapilo, Capparis sandwichiana, was found in abundance. These last three species were candidates for federal listing as endangered.

In late 1992, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed reinitiating consultation with the EPA, based on the discovery of the aupaka and `aiea plants, which were being given expedited consideration for the endangered species list. But with construction of the Kealakehe plant virtually complete, the involvement of a federal agency that triggered consultation process vanished. Still, the HFDC had assured the Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Fish and Wildlife Service that it was developing a mitigation plan that would adequately address conservation requirements for listed and proposed endangered plants.

A Rocky Start
By April of 1993, the DLNR had received a draft mitigation plan from HFDC, which stated its intention to treat all of the rare species as though they were all federally listed. Protective measures included:

  • To deal with the threat of fire, HFDC would require contractors to file a fire contingency plan with the DLNR’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife. The plan would, at a minimum, call for the presence on site of a water tanker, pump, and at least two trained fire fighters on the site at all times during construction until fire hydrants were in operation. Also, “the presence, storage, or use of glass containers of any description is prohibited on any portion” of the project.
  • To protect rare species, a ten-acre preserve would be established for 13 uhiuhi trees; a three-acre preserve would be set up for 11 aupaka plants; and walled enclosures would be built around ten individual uhiuhi trees. All preserves were to be protected with permanent rock walls from which exotic species had been removed. The two larger preserves were to have their boundaries flagged every 100 feet, while each enclosure of a single plant would have a second, temporary perimeter fence at least 35 feet from the plant’s base, with the 14 feet between the wall and the fence a buffer zone to be kept clear of growth and to prevent “invasion of the primary protective zone by equipment and other deleterious elements during general construction.”
  • After construction, all botanical and archaeological sites were to be turned over to the DLNR.

As discussions progressed, one thing was clear by May 1993: the relative abundance of aupaka on the site proposed for the new Kealakehe High School meant relocating the school. On May 18, representatives of the state Department of Accounting and General Services (which manages construction contracts for most state agencies), the state Department of Education, the DLNR, HFDC, and Fish and Wildlife Service discussed what to do. According to a chronology of events prepared by the architectural firm Oda McCarty, the federal representatives “indicated that mitigation measures for the aupaka plant preserve would need about half to two-thirds of the proposed 50.2-acre high school site.” Less than two weeks later, the HFDC recommended relocating the school to the south, to an area where housing had been planned. The high school finally opened its doors in 1998, right across the street from a plot now designated on maps as an “aupaka preserve.”

The high school might have been delayed, but at least it was built. Not so for the golf course. It remains on the map, but in 1993, the Japanese-owned company selected by the county to build and manage the course defaulted on its agreement with the county. After mediation, the company agreed to complete the work by August 1995. In June 1994, grading plans were approved, and that was the last sign that the company, Kealakehe Associates, gave of any serious intention to undertake the work. The county, under a consent order with the Department of Health to put the effluent from the treatment plant to good use, developed an alternative plan to use it at the Honokohau small boat harbor, but that plan, too, has been delayed, forcing the DOH to give the county another two-year extension to come into compliance. Today, according to the DOH, the county reuses 35,000 gallons of the 1.7 million gallons of effluent generated daily by the wastewater treatment plan. (Nelson Ho, deputy director for the county Department of Environmental Management, says the county is now in talks with the developer of a resort in the nearby area of Kohanaiki who wants to upgrade the effluent treatment system to R-1 quality and then use the effluent for landscaping and golf-course irrigation.) At the moment, the county has no plans or budget for using the area once slated for the Kealakehe golf course.

An Ever-Changing Cast
The relocated high school, shifting housing developments, and abandoned golf course were only the tip of the iceberg when it came to alterations to the various projects known collectively as the Villages of La`i`opua. Litigation in the early 1990s by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and a Hawaiian group over the planned sale of ceded lands put a snag in the HFDC’s plans to develop affordable housing in the area. Partly to address that issue, in 2000, the Housing and Community Development Corporation of Hawai`i, successor agency to the HFDC, turned Villages 3 and 4 over to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. In 2004, as part of a statewide land transfer, DHHL received development rights to all the other residential villages except 9 and 10. Villages 4, 5, and 8 are now in the early stages of subdivision work. Last June, the Land Board conveyed Village 9 to the Hawai`i Health Systems Corporation, which had said it plans to build a 142-bed, $156-million long-term care facility on the 36-acre site. The county still holds title to the land called out for a golf course, and as recently as 2004 issued a request-for-proposals from potential golf course developers. According to Ho, no qualified companies responded and Mayor Harry Kim is now considering using the land for affordable housing. As recently as last October, a private developer, Kealakehe Ahupua`a Foundation, was proposing to develop the county area with restaurants, a conference center, a pavilion – and, of course, the requisite “botanical/horticultural display garden.”

As the number of agencies involved in development proliferates, it has become harder and harder for the DLNR to pin down parties responsible for carrying out the protection measures called for in the mitigation plan. Complicating matters is the fact that the mitigation plan, the last draft of which appears to have been drawn up by HFDC in the 1999, was never signed.

According to a source at DHHL, “we’re essentially following it even though it’s unsigned.” But Marie Bruegmann, a botanist with the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the service had been informed by DHHL that “they’d like to do less than the mitigation plan.”

“As far as I know, it’s extremely unlikely that either the uhiuhi preserve or the aupaka preserve are ever going to happen. They [DHHL] might never develop the land, but it’s very unlikely they will ever maintain the preserve.”

Whatever the DHHL’s take on the mitigation plan, few of the mitigation measures it calls for have been carried out. The most conspicuous of those that have been undertaken is the construction of lovely stone walls around two uhiuhi trees in Village 3. This was done by the HFDC contractor as the houses were being built in the late 1990s. Since then, one of the uhiuhi has died. The second is hanging on, thanks, apparently, to the care given it by neighboring residents. The lot around the tree has been planted in natives and Polynesian introductions, and there is no evidence of weeds or koa haole.

In 2002, the Youth Conservation Corps, working through the DLNR, erected low stone walls around many of the aupaka plants and pulled invasive weeds. After the DHHL became involved in development, however, little seems to have been done by way of mitigation.

Sometime in early 2005, as work began on the site of the first subdivision to be developed by DHHL in this area (Village 4), a contractor sent a bulldozer into the adjoining uhiuhi preserve. The bulldozer tracks were discovered when Lyman Perry, the Hawai`i Island botanist for the Division of Forestry and Wildlife, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Bruegmann, and Jim Dupont of the Hawai`i office of DHHL, made a site visit in February. They could not tell if the bulldozing had taken any of the protected trees, but a census showed just four mature uhiuhi left in the preserve – less than a third the number that were found there a decade earlier.

Bruegmann is hard-pressed to explain the decline in both uhiuhi and aupaka in the short time since their discovery. “At least half of the uhiuhi trees have died,” she notes. “They were in sad shape when we first surveyed them in 1994. Most of them are dead now…. In one of the areas next to a dead tree, several seedlings had popped up, but they get hit so fast by the black twig borer…”

As for the aupaka, “it’s a little bit different story,” Bruegmann says. “There were about 60 when they first were discovered. Now they’re down to three or four. Maybe all the trees were old and just senescing when they were found, but also there’s definitely been an increase in weeds in that whole area, including fountain grass, which has become much more established.”

Susan Cordell of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry works on dry forest restoration in the nearby ahupua`a of Ka`upulehu. She agrees that the fountain grass invasion has coincided with the decline of many native plants. “We’re starting to understand how that happens,” she said. “The fountain grass robs all of the surface water. Other species that are more shallow-rooted, like uhiuhi, ohe makai, kauila – they’ve been in decline since they just can’t compete. But other species that can coexist, like mamo and alahe`e, have been declining, too.”

“If the plants are to be saved, we’re going to need safe areas – areas that are being managed intensely,” Cordell said. “More and more, community groups are doing restoration, and they’re really passionate about it. Maybe these are the locations for us to focus on.

“If we leave it to nature, they don’t have a chance.”

Patricia Tummons and Sydney Olson

Volume 16, Number 8 — February 2006

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