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Sep. 16, 2010 by Judy

Burn, Baby Burn…or, maybe, don’t.

If you’ve been to Maui, and you’ve been anywhere along the coast where the waterfalls aren’t, you’ve been in a dryland area of this incredibly complex island.  Also, you’ve been at Ground Zero of extinction in the Hawaiian islands.


As my friend Liz would say:  Wait…what???


Think of the dry places you know.  The soil is cracked in parched years.  The organisms have to find ways to deal with long stretches of stresses so intense that humans can only manage them using lots and lots of help—from AC to piped water to enough gas to drive somewhere cooler and wetter and kinder.  Life in these regions is fascinating to me and other science geeks like me, as plants and animals have to jump on the chance to hydrate, then wait for that chance again with a kind of patience that hurts the mind.  The sun is relentless.


Dryland areas of Hawaiian islands are particularly vulnerable to disturbance.  Here’s some of the reason why:  soils are often too thin to soak up the water, and the porous nature of volcanic rock (and cinder) sucks the rain down before it’s had a chance to puddle—like a giant rock sponge with zero sympathy.  By the time the noonday sun is overhead it is as if the rain had never come.


The insects and birds and plants that were dropped or rafted or hitchhiked here have had to adapt like crazy just to make it in their New World, most of them.   Then, they had to shift their strategies some more to handle what was thrown at them in terms of predators, food and weather.  Over time they have carved out veeeeeeeeery specific life tools, niches, plans, reactions.  When effective, yippee.  When things change on them faster than they can keep up, well, uh oh.


All the literature I have been able to find tells me something that surprised me the first time it sank in.  It’s this: these dryland ecosystems may have been the most biodiverse forests ON THE ISLANDS.  Maui’s slopes, say the papers written by people who have spent careers puzzling this out, held a nearly indescribably rich mixed forest, one with trees whose shapes seem straight out of Dr. Seuss and whose woods were hard enough to use for war (later) or soft enough to use nearly like cork (not so much wine storage as flotation uses).  There were fragrant shrubs and tasseled bunch grasses.  Birds were in, on, under all of it, from the ground to the treetops. I find it written that the fragrances of these lowland dry forests, and the volume of birdsong woven into them, were detectable by ships before the islands were even visible.  Imagine, after all those weeks and maybe months on the unpredictable Pacific…that.  To hear and smell a distant heaven.  To believe that things were about to get hopeful, maybe even beautiful, maybe even more beautiful than anything you’d seen yet in your dangerous, tumultuous travels.


And then, well, large-scale deforestation of dry forests slopes seems to have started with the panic-driven sandalwood harvesting in the early 1800s by Hawaiian royalty, driving the people they had until then managed so carefully.  They were desperate to pay debts incurred to the Western nations new to their shores and already so influential.


Sandalwood forests were removed, every stem, nearly overnight. With them went everything that grew on or under them, or along with them, or fed and nested in them. Erosion on a terrible scale began.  Something we now know is that removing a forest also means the rains fall less as the forest does not exist to help hold the water in the air, slow down a cloud, or transpire water up into the water column.  The soils lose their ability to hold onto ground water when rains DO come because there is nothing above them to soften the fall of the drops.  It is literally beaten. Then, the soils, the red-mud soils of Maui, have nowhere to go but to the reefs, smothering them for years.


Awesome.  Not.


Hawaiians had been so careful with their forests, so selective about how much they removed, being acutely aware of the feedback nature of the water cycle as well as regrowth rates for the resources on which they depended.  Without this kind of attention to detail and respect for systems there would be no wood for canoes, no housebuilding materials or medicines, and even no feathers of forest birds for the richly decorated capes of the chiefs.


When the West arrived, the Hawaiian world—human and ecological--contracted from the shock like a kick to the stomach, and the panic and other forms of shortsighted thinking began.


By the late 1800s, the perspective of what land was ‘for’ changed to one of extraction and most of the dry slopes of the islands were consolidated into massive ranches, the new owners and managers of which had often never seen what the original landscapes had been.


The 20th century saw an increase in all of us, as well as in the plants, insects, birds and other animals we thought were useful, delicious, hardy, pretty, lucky, potentially lucrative or which were just fantastic hitch-hikers (rats) or terrible ideas (mongoose).  Dryland habitats, already hugely trampled, burnt, eaten, plowed up, run over, badly managed or underappreciated for their worth did not have much fight left in them.  Plants gave up in the face of odd rain cycles, aggressive overgrowths of newcomers like mesquite, and the hooves and nibbling of sheep, cows, pigs, deer and goats.  And rats and mice.  And insects, too.


Then: fire.  It’s not really a natural part of Hawaiian ecosystems, so just imagine its ability to disrupt.  Native plants don’t bounce back from it well.   Many introduced plants evolved in fire-adapted systems, some of them NEED fire to do well, and so they recovered much more quickly from both human and naturally caused fires than the natives could hope to.


Today, only 10% of the original dryland forests remain. And they face a new threat, one that the whole planet is facing.  Research by Hawaiian scientists already indicates that global climate change has lifted and shifted Maui’s usual cloud layer.  In other words:  what rains will come, what water there will be, is moving from where it used to fall. What that means for Maui is unclear.


Shall I cheer you up a little?  Here on Maui there is one place where there seems to be a patch of miracles unfurling, and its name is Auwahi. Committed restoration of formerly tiny, hard to reach strips of the original native drylands is occurring.  These areas evaded the effects of cattle and goats, weeds and fires, by having the luck to exist down in deep ravines.  At the bottom of the cloud deck, up on the slopes around 4,000 ft. and inside the fences of Ulupalakua Ranch, ecologist Dr. Art Medieros and a growing army of seemingly tireless volunteers are weeding.  They are planting.  They are hauling water and pulling up mats of smothering African grasses and tenderly, tenderly placing seedlings in ground that has seen nothing like these children of the land for 100s of years.


Hawaiians come and chant to this healing forest.  Birds not seen in that area in human generations are venturing down to think about this change occurring here and possibly ponder moving in.  With the blessing of the ranch management the Auwahi project has expanded and expanded, and can now be seen from Google Maps as a patch of dark green health in a sea of cattle-munched brownness.  Personally, I stood in front of a tree which was ONE of TWO left standing in all the world.  There were cuttings being grown from this tree back in a greenhouse.  I didn’t know whether to sit under it and have a good cry or kiss it and pray.


Dr. Medieros likes to tell the story of the early plans for the miracle that is Auwahi, back when he and other ecologists stood next to a few ‘museum trees’--mature trees with no keiki, no seedlings, to be found--and with cows and goats and deer all around, and so little rain and all that damn impenetrable African grass and whatnot abounding. And so few people that knew what was lost, what had been, what could be.

Someone said “What if this doesn’t work?”

Someone said “What if it does?”






"wait, huh... what now?!"

Posted by footesea on Sep. 16, 2010

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