Editorial: Hakalau Needs to Keep Eyes on the Prize

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Planning is a good thing. And the 15-year Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge is, by our lights, a pretty good one. But the thing about planning is this: it should never undercut its own viability.

If you own a home and its roof is leaking, you don’t ignore that while you brainstorm over possible renovations – unless those renovations include razing the house. By the same token, if you manage a refuge where pigs are anathema to its very survival, you don’t hold off repairing fences while you ponder future options.

Yet for three years, that seems to be exactly what happened at the Hakalau forest unit of the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge. Under direction from on high to drop everything and complete the plan, everyone on the refuge staff from 2007 to 2010 seems to have been dragooned into the office and chained to a desk. And with little attention or resources directed to field work during this entire time – no pig surveys, no routine fence monitoring or repairs, little pig trapping or snaring by staff – it should come as no surprise that the pigs are back in force at all eight fenced management units at Hakalau. 

Small wonder, too, that during this same period, staff turnover should have been so high. By most accounts, work on the CCP took people from the field, people who wanted to be in the field, and put them behind desks. Compounding the misfortunes was the fact that the planning period coincided with the retirement of two key members of the refuge staff.

In short, the Fish and Wildlife Service may have been reaching for the stars in its grand plan for the next decade and a half, but in doing so, it was tripped up by the banana peels at its feet. Regaining the ground lost is not impossible, but it will certainly consume many of the limited resources that the refuge now has at its disposal – and, in so doing, impair prospects that tasks called out in the long-range plan can ever be realized.

A Rocky Path to the Future

The Comprehensive Conservation Plan anticipates a day when both the Hakalau and Kona units of the refuge are free of ungulates and invasive species, provide habitat for native birds and plants, including some of the most endangered in the world, and are sufficiently large to buffer some of the anticipated impacts of climate change. 

The goals are admirable and defensible. But attaining them will require much more than an endorsement from the top levels of the Fish and Wildlife Service, or even from the highest ranks of the Department of Interior. Congress itself will have to embrace the idea that Hakalau needs strong support beyond the meager crumbs – roughly $1.17 million in 2010 — it has been given and, what’s more, that Hakalau deserves such support.

In the current political climate, winning the needed resources may be more challenging than defeating the pigs. Last year, bills in both the House and the Senate (introduced by Mazie Hirono and Daniel Akaka, respectively) would have authorized the acquisition of land to expand both units, but neither bill made it to a vote.

What’s more, the entire Fish and Wildlife Service is operating without an approved budget, with funds provided on the basis of continuing resolutions. The service’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2012 includes a request for $3.7 million to purchase 4,900 acres adjoining the Hakalau unit. The acquisition, ranked 25th in priority among 63 proposals, would represent just under a third of a total addition of 15,730 acres to both units that refuge management regards as essential and which the service estimates will cost around $30 million to acquire.

Putting off acquisition of the land would be penny-wise but pound-foolish. Maybe the refuge system lacks the funds needed to manage the land at present to the extent desirable, but it is by no means certain that willing sellers will always hold title to the additional lands. What’s more, the acquisition should, by rights, be paid out of the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund and not out of general revenues. (The LWCF receives royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling to the tune of nearly a billion dollars each year. Although it is supposed to be used for the purchase of land having high value for natural resource protection, Congress has lately diverted much of the revenue for other purposes.)

For years, Hawai`i, the endangered species capital of the United States, has failed to receive anything near a fair share of federal spending on endangered species. With so many of the islands’ at-risk forest birds concentrated at Hakalau, it is time for both the state’s congressional delegation and the Fish and Wildlife Service to put the full funding of the refuge at the top of their list of priorities.

* * *

The State’s Shameful Behavior

One of the biggest expenses in managing the Hakalau unit is repairing fences. The state of Hawai`i, which should be supportive of the same conservation goals as the Fish and Wildlife Service, instead is making the refuge’s work all the more difficult by maintaining neighboring state-owned land as a de facto game management area. 

The state’s posture undercuts refuge management in ways practically too numerous to count. For one thing, the actual length of fence that must be built is far more than it would have to be if the state managed its lands in a manner consistent with refuge goals. For another, the pigs and the odd wild bull in Piha can break down refuge fences, especially in times of drought. By keeping the area open to hunters, the state practically invites vandalism at the refuge itself.

Then there are the problems associated with invasive plants. With the state making little effort to manage its resources at Piha, the area will continue to provide a seed source for weeds that can be carried into the refuge by animals or blown in by the breeze.

The benefits to keeping Piha under the present management regime are minimal, by any measure. The Department of Land and Natural Resources has utterly no idea of the extent to which hunters use the area – and make no mistake about it, hunters are the only ones who go near the place on anything approaching a regular basis. There is no attempt to manage pig populations there – for sustainable yield or anything else. While hunters may whine about loss of their hunting grounds, the lack of documented use of the area should put paid to claims that upper Piha has real value to them.

The legislation establishing Hakalau allows it to acquire land by donation or purchase, but it cannot acquire public (state) lands by purchase. If the state wants to see the area managed in a fashion consistent with the objectives of the refuge (and why shouldn’t it?), the state can either enter into a joint management agreement, as it has done in the case of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, or it can undertake compatible management activities on its own.

For a start, the Division of Forestry and Wildlife should be asked to revisit its so-called “management” guidelines for upper Piha. At the very least, bag limits and hunting-day restrictions should be lifted when the Board of Land and Natural Resources takes final action on the draft hunting rules that will soon come before it for a vote.

There is no reason whatsoever for the state to continue to ignore the damage it is causing to its own natural resources by ceding Piha to the hunters. The presence of the refuge has been a boon to Hawai`i and its imperiled birds and plants – and even to the Hawai`i visitor industry, with thousands of volunteers from all around the country working at Hakalau every year. Relegating Piha to the status of a pig nursery, for the dubious benefit of a handful of hunters, is a slap in the face to all who have labored for the last quarter century to make Hakalau the amazing place it has become.

Patricia Tummons

Volume 21, Number 12 — June 2011

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