Kimberly Thayer of the Mauna Kahalawai Watershed Partnership often thinks of ways to improve Maui’s precious native ecosystems and freshwater systems, which have taken a village to protect and conserve.
“Even when I drive to work in Olowalu and watch the Pali all the time and think, ‘this was once the forest, all that, and how can I make it the forest again? ?'” laughed Thayer.
“Every time I drive into Hana or back, I’m like, ‘how can I get this to be native forest again? Almost everywhere I go, that’s what I think about.
Laughter aside, however, there is some frustration behind his voice knowing that Valley Island once thrived with native trees, plants, insects and birds.
Thayer hopes the ongoing collaboration between Mauna Kahalawai, East Maui Watershed Partnership and Leeward Haleakala Watershed Restoration Partnership will help address intentional and unintentional introductions of invasive species, climate change, urbanization and unmanaged wild ungulates.
“By working together and creating these partnerships, we can do more large-scale conservation efforts across vast lands and really work as a united front,” said Allison Borell, outreach and education manager for the East Maui Watershed Partnership.
Borell and others recently spoke at a Maui Invasive Species Committee webinar series to kick off Hawaii’s Invasive Species Awareness Month.
These forests are essential for capturing the water that “we all drink and rely on,” said Thayer, who has worked with the MKWP for about nine years.
Mauna Kahalawai, otherwise known as the West Maui Mountains, supplies approximately 75% of all Maui County Water Supply Department customers, she added.
A team of 11 full-time employees lead efforts to protect and preserve approximately 50,000 acres in the Mauna Kahalawai watershed, home to a variety of trees, plants, ferns and mosses as well as insects, birds and native snails.
“Many of them are here and nowhere else on the whole planet”, said Thayer.
Much of the landscape is awash with non-native shrubs and grasses, which can choke out the native ohia lehua trees. Goats, deer and sheep, and sometimes people, trample the fields and dry out the soil.
Arid landscapes, like in Ukumehame, can trigger potential wildfires or sediment runoff during a rainfall event, Thayer said.
“It’s not just problems far up in the mountains, because things that happen in mauka will inevitably affect us in makai,” she said. “So this not only affects our quality of life and our natural spaces, but also affects our water supply.”
Established in 1991, the East Maui Watershed Partnership includes six major landowners and contains about 100,000 total acres of conservation land, but only about half is actively managed properly, Borell said.
This side of the island presents different challenges where the crew of seven full-time employees, including four on the ground, manage different terrains, native species and various threats. According to EMWP, the largest concentration of endangered birds in the world live in this habitat.
The East Maui Watershed collects water for Upcountry neighborhoods and businesses, which is distributed by the East Maui Irrigation System. According to the website, the watershed includes seven reservoirs that can store 274 million gallons and has 74 miles of ditches, tunnels and pipes that carry 450 million gallons of water per day.
Borell said the mission is to protect the watershed as well as educate “the public and the local community on conservation and other issues related to watershed protection.”
As with other watersheds, years of overgrazing by cows, pigs and goats as well as the introduction of invasive plant species and diseases have degraded the native ecosystems of the Leeward Haleakala watershed, said Kailie Aina, coordinator awareness and liaison with cultural programs.
Only less than 10% of the historic forest cover remains on the slopes of Haleakala, she said, which is why their main goals are to restore and preserve the native forests and the creatures that live there, as well as to be able to perpetuate cultural resources. and practices.
“We are dealing with a much drier situation,” Aina said, noting that Maui is experiencing a greater number of consecutive dry days, especially at higher elevations, which can increase fire risk.
Stretching from Makawao through Ulupalakua to Kaupo, LHWP covers just over 43,000 acres.
Aina said about 77% of groundwater recharge comes from watershed partnership lands, so “It is really important that we restore these areas in order to maintain our water supply for generations.
Dirty work to make the dream work
Mitigation strategies among all watershed partnerships include constructing conservation fencing to keep animals out; remove and weed invasive plants; plant native species; and provide educational and volunteer opportunities.
“It’s super hard work, but there are signs of hope,” said Thayer, showing photos during his presentation of young koa trees and ohia lehua saplings growing in the West Maui watershed.
So far, MKWP has built 25.2 miles of fence that protects over 30,000 acres of land above the fence, of which 23,310 acres are critical habitats for endangered plants.
According to their website, 126 species of rare plants, animals and communities are protected within the boundaries and nearly 104 miles of perennial waterways have been restored on partnership land.
In the Leeward Haleakala watershed, approximately 122,000 native seeds were planted, approximately 12,000 seedballs were made by Maui students, and 13.5 miles of fences were maintained to protect native habitat.
“Either you do nothing, or you do something, and for doing something, we see results”, Aina said. “The only way to do that is to keep moving forward, to have hope, and to see that with the work we’re doing now and seeing these forests survive, they wouldn’t be there unless someone one intervenes.”
The East Maui Watershed team built more than 7 miles of fences in remote areas of the watershed, implemented a hunting program to increase hunter access, developed a monitoring and management and initiated programs to control animals and invasive plant species above the fence lines, according to Borelle.
“It’s the little wins sometimes that help and that’s what keeps you going because if we don’t take a step forward, even if it’s small, then nothing gets done,” said Borel.
Engaging the community by providing volunteer opportunities, workshops and partnerships for young people to learn more about Maui’s ecosystem is “totally my passion” she added.
“It will really be up to them to really create the changes and prevent the threats from coming,” she said.
From cleaning shoes after a hike so you don’t spread seeds, to planting natives in the yard, to supporting and advocating for watershed management efforts, Thayer said small actions of the community at large can have great impacts.
“Every yard, place and school should have native plants growing there”, Thayer added. “I’m looking at, like, the medians of the freeway and I’m like ‘why don’t the natives grow in the median of this road and in this little grassy area, in this parking lot or this strip of land right in front of the mall?'”
For Aina, being open to learning about the island’s culture and environment will inspire a ripple effect for more positive impacts.
“Hawaii is not Hawaii without these plants, animals and insects,” Aina said. “For me, I just like to think of all the possible ways to educate, whether you’re from here or not. If you educate yourself, you can become a catalyst for change.
Funding for restoration work for each watershed organization often comes from various public and private grants, small donations and partnerships.
Still, Thayer noted that there is never a guarantee that funding will be given each year to support their efforts.
Borelle added: “We’re all small crews so I would love for the state to have 1%, even just 1% of their funding for conservation efforts, that would have a huge impact on our ability to grow our crews and the work we do. But in the meantime, if we can’t have that, I would like more people to get involved to understand that these places exist and to change some of their daily habits.
* Dakota Grossman can be reached at [email protected]