Feds want to plant invasive weeds to control soil after Maui fires

Feds want to plant invasive weeds to control soil after Maui fires

With no vegetation on thousands of acres, there is a need to prevent sedimentation before the rainy season arrives, USDA officials said.

With winter rains quickly approaching, federal officials are moving forward with a plan to airdrop seeds of the invasive weed across the scorched landscape of Upcountry Maui and Lahaina to control loose soil before they wash into streams and oceans.

Although planting native species like pili or coelho may be desirable, they are not available in quantities that can be spread across a landscape or watershed, said Michael Constantinides, assistant director of technology for the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“The honest, basic truth is we have few options,” he said Wednesday during a House Finance Committee field trip to a Chevalier-owned property in Coola overlooking some of the 19 homes destroyed in the Upcountry in the Aug. 8 wildfires.

Planting invasive weeds to control soil is better than doing nothing, says Michael Constantinides, associate director for technology at the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Rhythm/2023)

“We want you to understand that it’s complicated and that we’re trying to do the best we can and we’re going back to recommending certain species that are not native to the state of Hawaii to revegetate some of these landscapes because in the short term we have to stabilize these soils,” Constantides said.

“This is a risk or potential tragedy that is worse than doing nothing or trying to do something with a deck of cards that doesn’t have a good chance of success in the short to medium term,” he said.

Rep. Kyle Yamashita, who chairs the Finance Committee and has represented parts of the Upcountry since 2004, said he brought his colleagues on the site visit because managing soil and water conservation districts across the state has never been a top priority.

“More members need to understand that because over the years there has been a real lack of funding,” he said.

Last year, Yamashita helped raise the state budget for such work to $700,000. State funding is then tapped to bring in about $10 million to $12 million in federal funds, USDA officials said.

Rep. Kyle Yamashita, who represents parts of the Upcountry, said he took the House Finance Committee to Kula to learn the importance of investing in soil conservation.  (Nathan Eagle/Civil Rhythm/2023)
Rep. Kyle Yamashita, who represents parts of the Upcountry, said he took the House Finance Committee to Kula to learn the importance of investing in soil conservation. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Rhythm/2023)

Constantinides said he has had a few crews in the area over the past four or five weeks assessing the situation. They will prepare a damage assessment report that will outline the proposed game plan for the service.

From there, he said the plan will be sent up the USDA chain for approval, including federal funding. That process could take a month or two, but the seeds will be dropped within 200 days or so afterward by helicopters, drones or fixed-wing aircraft, NRCS officials said.

The Aug. 8 fires on Maui killed at least 99 people, destroyed about 2,200 structures and burned more than 2,000 acres in Lahaina. The fires destroyed more than 200 acres in Kola, 1,000 acres in Olinda, and 3,000 acres in Poliho.

Constantius attributed the tragedy to four factors: drought, invasion, land management, and extreme weather.

Invasive weeds on unmanaged lands became a heavy fuel load and then became catastrophic as they caught fire and were fanned by high winds. But he said the native bailey grasses would have burned just as well as buffalograss, and that drought was something the islands had dealt with for decades.

“In the wake of something like this, a lot of people want to start pointing things and pointing fingers — maybe invasive species were the scary guy,” he said. “But in reality, the weather was brutal, because we had never had that kind of wind combined with those three other factors, and perhaps other factors came together in what was an unfortunate and terrible coincidence of factors.”

Some landowners in Kula use deciduous eucalyptus trees to control the soil by lining it vertically and adding mulch.  (Nathan Eagle/Civil Rhythm/2023)
Some landowners in Kula use deciduous eucalyptus trees to control the soil by lining it vertically and adding mulch. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Rhythm/2023)

Without 80 mph winds and a lack of active land management, he said he doubts a single life would have been lost to any of the four fires.

“Are they invasive when you talk about native forests? Yes they are. Do I like them in a native forest environment? No, I don’t,” he said. “But they serve important ecological services, keeping the soil from eroding. This prevents sedimentation into our streams, communities and coral reefs.

Christy Martin of the Coordinating Group on Alien Pest Species, a project of the University of Hawai’i Manoa’s Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit, said in an interview Wednesday that the NCRS needs to consider other options.

While she acknowledged the need to control soil, she questioned the wisdom of planting the same invasive weeds that sparked the fires.

“We can’t keep doing this,” she said.

Constantinides said planting invasive grasses should be done in conjunction with controlling invasive axis deer through fencing and other efforts.

“To mitigate what is now a second front-loaded disaster, we have to get the pivotal deer under control,” he said. “No matter what type of plant it is, we have to control it. They will eat it all until it’s gone.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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