Earlier this month, under sunny skies, I boarded a plane for the Hawai‘i Conservation Conference in Hilo, predicted to be the landfall site for Hurricane Guillermo. By the time we pushed back from the gate, sun still shining, rain had started to fall and steam sizzled off the sunbaked runway.
“I’ve asked myself more than once, ‘Should I be going,’” my friend Jen said on the car ride to the airport.
Inside the stifling gym-turned-conference-hall at the University of Hawai‘i-Hilo Campus, Sig Zane strode to the podium wearing dark sunglasses and a shirt of his own design tucked into pressed jeans. “What is your tradition that allows you to be intimate with nature?” he asked the nearly 1000-strong in attendance. Sig and his sons designed the conference logo and apparel, a motif of koa (Acacia koa) leaves against a watermark of liko lehua, the young, geometrical leaves of ʻōhiʻa (Metrosideros polymorpha).
He gifted a kihei, sarong, to keynote speaker Tom Lovejoy, as, outside, grey skies thickened and threatened.
Introduced as a giant in conservation circles, Tom Lovejoy didn’t exactly tower over the podium, but that wasn’t the intent behind the metaphor. Wearing his Sig Zane-designed kihei, Lovejoy is credited with coining the term, “biological diversity” and co-founding the public television series, “Nature,” was the thirteenth employee of the World Wildlife Fund, and is politically well connected in Washington D.C. He opened his talk by saying, “Biologically, Hawai‘i is the richest of all the United States, and simultaneously the one most under pressure.”
He went on to say a few other things I jotted in my notebook:
“I remember when conservation was the ‘nice’ thing to do. But, today, it is essential.”
“Be open and thoughtful about new tools and technology.” He was referring to GMO here. “Don’t get me wrong. I have no use for Roundup.”
“In my career,” Lovejoy continued, “I got tired of hearing, ‘Why don’t you be reasonable?’ In my experience, the other side was not reasonable. But we mustn’t focus on each other and forget the environment. It’s time to open our eyes to what is a reasonable future.”
“Today, conservation requires thinking at a planetary level. But everyone can make a difference.”
“If Thomas Jefferson were alive today,” Lovejoy said, “Instead of saying the most important thing people can do for our country is to introduce a new plant, he’d say it would be to conserve a species.”
As an example of one such saved species, he shared the story of Hawai‘i’s native and critically endangered Laysan duck, which, was, according to Lovejoy, down to a single, surviving female incubating eggs on a nest in the early 1900s. Unfortunately, she lost her eggs to predation, but she happened to have some available sperm stored in a pocket of her oviduct and laid a new clutch of fertilized eggs that survived. Today, approximately 600 owe their existence to this stalwart matriarch.
Dorm life has changed since I lived in one several decades ago. Roommates share a bathroom and have individual bedrooms. There is a billiards room and communal kitchen. Study rooms. Computer labs. And lots of lounge space—think Starbucks without the sugary goods and baristas.
What hasn’t changed, though, is the air conditioning. There was none in my day; there was none at UH-Hilo. I bunked in a dormitory called Hale `Alahonua, which translates to English as “the breeze upon which the fragrance of earth is carried.” But with Guillermo sucking up any hint of trade winds, there was no breeze during my stay, and sweat layered my skin again and again the same way flows of lava built the land upon which the dorm itself stood.
My suite-mate Heather and I managed to procure a fan—a great, industrial-sized one with an airplane-like motor that drowned out the young conservationists playing pool and drinking beer, the coqui frogs, my snoring, and my alarm clock.
But the 23rd annual Hawai‘i Conservation Conference was not about creature comforts. Its theme was Hanohano Hawaiʻi Kuauli: Celebrating Collaboration and Wisdom across Hawai‘i’s Ecosystems.
On day two, after a night wrestling disposable sheets that wouldn’t stay tucked on the twin mattress upon which I tried to rest—with sleep aids, no less—I did wake to blue skies, as Guillermo passed north of us.
“Please don’t take any ʻōhiʻa material back to your island. Familiarize yourself with it at http://www.ohiawilt.org.”
I jotted this quote in my notes but failed to attribute it.
I’d heard about the new disease after it made headline news earlier in the year. Later, scanning the website, I learned ʻōhiʻa wilt had already killed stands of mature, healthy-looking trees in the Hilo and nearby Puna district within a matter of weeks. It’s not yet known how the disease spreads. But it has the potential to kill Hawai‘i’s most abundant and culturally significant tree all across the state.
For that reason, the conference canceled a site visit to a nearby native forest restoration site. Spreading this fungus to other islands was the very last thing a bunch of conservationists would want to do.
Beyond tree huggers, the state of Hawaii is also taking this threat seriously. The Board of Agriculture is expected to approve a quarantine rule next week that will prohibit the movement of ʻōhiʻa trees, the soil surrounding them, and ʻōhiʻa lehua flowers, leaves, and twigs from the Big Island. Even the inter-island shipping company, Young Brothers, has banned shipment of the tree.
At the Volcano Rare Plant Facility, the first of its kind in the state, Patty Moriyasu, has tended to some of the most endangered plants on Big Island, including the “other” silversword, cousin to the more well-known Haleakalā silversword on Maui. Over 20 years, Patty has provided 40,000 specimens of Mauna Kea silversword for out-planting at strategic places around the island. On average, she handles more than 80 species of rare plants annually. In the month of July 2015 alone, she took in 45 collections and delivered 1,300 specimens for out-planting.
Under bright, blue skies, as temperatures heated up inside the greenhouse situated at 4,000-feet elevation, Patty said, “It’s been a hot summer. We want the cold weather to come back.”
When asked about the disease killing the ʻōhiʻa trees, she said, “We’re losing our watershed to invasives, and ʻōhiʻa loss will allow more invasives to come in. Everybody should be concerned.”
“Do you have a favorite plant,” someone in our group asked.
“Ssh,” she answered and with a tilt of her head and slant of her eyes in the direction of some plants, she said, “Not in front of them.”
By the time Kamana Beamer stood behind the podium for his keynote address, it was evident Guillermo would pass far to the north of the Hawaiian Islands and talk turned to Hilda, a tropical storm on the heels of Guillermo that was gaining speed. It was still hot. No breezes blew through the dorm or gym or town of Hilo.
“It’s shameful,” Beamer said. He heads the Kohala Center, a community-based non-profit steeped in conservation, education, and scientific research. “That we once fed the people of Hawai‘i using stone tools and cordage made from plants, and today with all our technology, we cannot.”
Beamer comes from a long lineage of Hawaiian people who fed themselves off the land. He described the Hawaiian word, ‘āina as a place with a human relationship.
Today’s children have inherited a rich land that’s been degraded, he said. “But it’s not about what we inherit or who we work for but what we do. To conserve is to leave something behind. What will you leave behind?”
Under banners declaring the UH-Hila the national volleyball champions of the NAIA for five years in the 1980s, two dozen members of E Alu Pu accepted the 2015 Hawai‘i Conservation Innovation Award. The network represents 30-some communities around Hawai‘i working together to manage local natural and cultural resources.
Their first united effort was 20 years in the making and came to fruition during the conference when Governor Ige finally signed the necessary documents to designate a stretch of coastline on Kaua’i’s North Shore as the state’s first Community-Based Subsistence Fishing Area, in which regular people–not some government agency–came together to set fishing rules for their community. Rules include a no commercial fishing ban, the use of only two hook-and-line poles per fisherman; no spear guns and night fishing; and limits for opihi, limu, lobsters, urchins, and octopus.
The rules went into effect August 15, and it’s expected numerous more communities across the state will be following suit.
There were more presentations and panels and reports in break-out sessions across campus. I tended to choose those in air-conditioned rooms. Like: The captive breeding of ‘alala, the endangered Hawaiian crow. Rehabilitation efforts of Newell’s shearwater. The creation of protected habitat for Hawaiian petrels. The Kamehameha butterfly. The state land mammal, a bat. Black band coral disease. Humpback whale entanglements. Sea turtle strandings.
And Hilda entered Hawaiian waters and quickly ramped up from a tropical storm to a Category 2 hurricane. She wouldn’t stop there, though. She was headed for Category 4 honors. But, blessedly, like Guillermo, she veered away from our string of islands, providing us with periodic cloud cover and rain.
Now, there’s Kilo.
When it comes to hurricanes, there’s a saying I’ve often heard during the 15 years I’ve lived in Hawai’i. It goes like this: If the hurricane has a Hawaiian name, pay attention.
But there’s another saying specific to Kauai, and it goes: If the hurricane approaches from the south, take action.
Twenty-three years ago, a category four hurricane with the Hawaiian name ‘Iniki arrived from the south. She ripped roofs of homes, flattened buildings, spread chickens to the far reaches of the island, and stripped valleys and forests of native vegetation. She’s credited/blamed for why there are so many chickens on Kauai and in so many unlikely places. But she’s also credited/blamed for why an invasive tree, albizia, has created mono-forests throughout once biologically diverse native forests.
While diseases like ʻōhiʻa wilt are one concern of conservationists, natural disasters are another. Both can destroy native species. And not just plants. ‘Iniki wiped out thousands of seabirds, primarily shearwaters and petrels, that had just had just hatched in the high reaches of Kaua’i’s mountains.
It would be devastating for me to lose my house and belongings. But things can be re-purchased and a home re-built. What would be even worse to me would be to see valleys and forests and reefs and species of Hawai’i destroyed, some forever.
I am off to stock up on food and supplies in preparation for Kilo, approaching from the south.