March 24, 2021

Kuahiwi a Kai: Lanai Watershed Conservation Program moving forward

Contributed by Jonathan Sprague and Dr. Rachel Sprague, co-directors of Conservation, Pulama Lanai

Originally published in the March 2021 issue of Lanai Today.

When we first met as a community in mid-2019 about Lanai’s Kuahiwi a Kai Watershed Conservation Program, we knew that such a partner-based grant program would be slow to start. We did not anticipate that announcing the first grants in March 2020 would coincide with the rising COVID-19 pandemic, or the challenges it would pose. Now, circling back a year later, we are happy to share some project updates, and exciting new grants recently awarded by our lead partner, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF).

Why the Kuahiwi a Kai program?

Like much of Hawaii, Lanai’s landscape has seen over 150 years of impacts from near-sighted agricultural use, invasive species introductions, and mismanagement of non-native ungulate species (hooved animals, such as deer, sheep, and goats). Today, we see damage to the freshwater aquifer and sedimentation onto coral reefs that will take decades to undo. But the Kuahiwi a Kai program is a first step to reverse this history, and in doing so, protect and enhance coral reefs and nearshore fisheries, native plants and animals, and sensitive coastal cultural sites, while fostering connection between Lanai’s community and the land. Fortunately, there are success stories to help guide us: restoration at Kawela Ridge on Molokai, and the Auwahi Forest Restoration Project on Maui have both seen incredible recovery of native vegetation after reduction of ungulates and increases in outplanting. 

While the COVID-19 pandemic slowed some projects, work with remote sensing and data collection still moved forward. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and University of Hawaii are mapping Lanai’s vegetation using aerial imagery to guide revegetation and invasive species control efforts. Another USGS group is mapping our most erosible soils with a combination of high-tech LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) and low-tech field observations. Pono Pacific Land Management is using topography of the project area and the mapping projects to identify and scope fence alignments to manage deer numbers and movement. They are on track to start building a first fenceline later in 2021 after more conversation with conservation agencies and community members about alignment and priority areas. Work also continues on a predator-proof fence above Hii to protect uau (Hawaiian petrel) and other native species from invasive cats and rats, and San Diego Zoo Global completed a monitoring plan so we can effectively evaluate conservation efforts for uau.

Projects that focused on outreach and community involvement were more heavily impacted by COVID, but with increasing Lanai vaccination rates, these projects are regaining momentum. The University of Hawaii School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology will work with Lanai students to build and deploy sensors measuring nearshore water quality and sedimentation. Ridge to Reefs will host student interns to grow and outplant native plants with the community to directly reduce erosion. The Nature Conservancy will begin small-boat-based nearshore reef and water quality assessment surveys. 

Finally, we are pleased to announce two new Kuahiwi a Kai partnerships. First, the Lanai Culture and Heritage Center will be starting a stewardship program with Lanai residents, focusing on control hunting in the project area to reduce the deer herd, and education to connect people with the history and management of a healthy landscape. Shelly Preza from the Lanai Culture and Heritage Center says, “we are honored to be one of the first Kuahiwi a Kai grant recipients conducting a project led by our community. We are excited to utilize local knowledge and talent to steward our beloved island. Stay tuned!” The second new partnership is with Kekulamamo, led by Anthony Pacheco, who will use video storytelling to document the Kuahiwi a Kai conservation program and resources of the area. He says, “by telling the story of Lanai’s relationship with aina and malama aina from our community’s perspective, we hope to share an organic experience that will engage and inspire future generations to come.”

It is encouraging to see this program’s momentum building. We expect more Kuahiwi a Kai projects to be starting up in the next year, and look forward to providing more regular updates here and in meetings soon. Mahalo nui loa!

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