State budget increases funds for forest watershed protection


The state budget bill, signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Neil Abercrombie, significantly increases funding for forest protection in Hawaii.

“The Department of Land and Natural Resources Watershed Initiative remains a top priority and will continue to move forward,” said Abercrombie. “Protecting our mauka forest areas, which contain native plants and animals found nowhere else in the world, is essential to the future of agriculture, industry, and our environment in Hawaii.”

The new state budget includes $3.5 million in general funds and $5 million in general obligation bond funding in fiscal year 2014 for watershed protection, as well as an additional $2.5 million in bonds in fiscal year 2015.

“This is a chance to be proactive about protecting our forest watershed,” said Melora Purell, coordinator for the Kohala Watershed Partnership. “It’s a way to think ahead and plan ahead, rather than cleaning up the mess we have made, which is what a lot of our environmental issues are about.”

Forests play an important role in providing Hawaii’s drinking water, but more than half of these forests have been lost, and the rest are threatened by expanding populations of invasive species.

The budget also includes $3.5 million over two years to protect Hawaii’s largest remaining tract of dry land forest, located in Manuka, in Ka‘u district, additional positions for natural resource managers and planners for on-the-ground forest protection projects, and $750,000 in both fiscal years 2014 and 2015 for the Hawaii Invasive Species Council.

“It will cost many times more if we are trying to fix environmental damage later and instead actively protect the forest that are collecting our water right now,” Purell said.

Multiple projects on Hawaii Island will be funded by the increase. Among those are a plan to plant native mamane trees on a 5,200-acre site on the northern slope of Mauna Kea, projects in the remote forests of Kohala and Ka‘u to supply drinking water and irrigation for those regions, and capital improvement projects to protect the dry land forest in Manuka.

Purell and the Kohala Watershed Partnership plan to save a unique piece of land in windward Kohala.

“It’s one of the most unique forests in the world,” Purell said. “The land is a soaking wet cloud forest. The ohia trees are hundreds of years old and are only knee or hip high. The ecosystem is like a dwarf forest because the ground is so wet and acidic.”

The project, which includes both state and private land, will be protected from invasive species and once protected will play an essential role in collecting water for most of north Hawaii Island.

The Watershed Partnership will also continue its goal of eradicating invasive species like Himalayan ginger and strawberry guava.

“We now can make substantial progress towards our goal of doubling the level of forest protection in a decade,” said William Aila Jr., chairman of the Department of Land and Natural Resources. “The bond funding alone funds the protection of more than 40,000 acres in watershed forests and dry land ecosystems statewide.”