Friday | April 17, 2015
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Volunteers weed out invasive fountain grass

Four volunteers trudged uphill along a roadway in the Hawaiian Ocean View Estates subdivision of Ka‘u Saturday toward their target. Just moments before, they spotted a patch of mounding fountain grass.

Hunched over, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park botanical assistant Brandon Figueroa began cutting off the invasive plants’ feathery purple plumes with scissors and carefully placing them into a Ziploc bag. These showy plumes contain hundreds of seeds. If dispersed, the fast-spreading, highly flammable grass can dramatically alter the landscape, as well as increase fuel loads and fire hazards.

Figueroa’s son, Blaze, used a pickax to uproot the plants from the ground. It was a task that the 9-year-old boy was delighted to do, mostly because it taught him new skills and gave him further insight into the resource management work his dad does.

Nearby, Friends of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park members Kathleen Powers and Rosemary Schatzlein scoured the block looking for more noxious weeds to remove along public rights of way. Fountain grass observed on private properties and vacant lots were left alone. However, all plants spotted were tallied and their locations marked on a map. The team also made note of any hazards, such as stinging insects or stray dogs, before moving onto another location.

By noon, this team had removed 50 plants. They were among the more than 20 volunteers who participated in a service project in celebration of National Public Lands Day. The work day resembled a scavenger hunt, with seven teams driving around different portions of the subdivision, removing fountain grass or mapping it.

The event also brought greater awareness about an ongoing partnership between HOVE residents, park staff and volunteers to prevent the buildup of large populations of fountain grass and reduce the likelihood of a large, destructive fire in the community. The effort has also helped limit the spread of fountain grass and mitigate wildfire risks in surrounding areas, including the park’s Kahuku unit.

“Invasive species do not recognize political boundaries,” said Park Ecologist David Benitez, who led Saturday’s effort. “Where relatively small populations of fountain grass have been found, there’s a high priority to remove these plants in the early stages before they become too established. The park has been very aggressive in keeping the numbers low in the Kahuku unit. However, partnerships like this one in the HOVE community are equally as important.”

Over the past eight years, the park and Ocean View Community Association have held about a dozen volunteer fountain grass removal work days. At the first one in 2005, participants removed 5,500 plants. Subsequent efforts have typically resulted in the removal of 700 to 1,000 plants. During Saturday’s event, 560 plants were removed. To date, park staff and volunteers have removed 13,216 plants from HOVE — “a significant and noticeable accomplishment,” Benitez said.

All the plumes collected are destroyed by park employees who freeze and then burn them in a wood burning stove.

Introduced to Hawaii as an ornamental plant in the early 1900s, fountain grass escaped cultivation and is now one of the most abundant plants in leeward Hawaii. It displaces native plants and intensifies fire cycles. Invaded areas also experience more frequent and larger fires, Benitez said. For example, this noxious weed contributed to the spread of a 25,000-acre wildfire that forced the evacuation of Waikoloa village in 2005.

While fountain grass can reestablish in burned areas, native species often do not or become less abundant. Fountain grass further intensifies fire potential because it is one of the few invasive species that can colonize young lava flows, which have traditionally served as natural fire breaks, Benitez said.

Gil Robinson, president of the Ocean View Community Association, recalled a stubborn fire that burned a quarter-mile square in his neighborhood about three years ago. That’s an experience he doesn’t want to experience again.

Robinson said the association arranged the unique partnership because the park has numerous excellent staff members who can help HOVE residents get rid of the problematic weeds and maintain areas better. They can also train volunteers who can in turn guide others. Robinson said such service projects bring the community together and can cause a ripple effect that amplifies the effectiveness of the effort.

What Benitez hoped participants took away was a better understanding of this invasive species and their ability to make meaningful impacts in their community, particularly pertaining to protecting their property and the natural environment.

While fountain grass can be ripped out, eradicating it is not realistic because of the continual ingress and the fact that plant is so widespread, Benitez said. But this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to give up the fight. What people can do is contain it, select areas with small populations for removal, and be diligent about defending those areas, he said. The best strategy, however, is prevention, he added.

The biggest challenge the group faces is access to residential lots where fountain grass exists. Following the work days, the Ocean View Community Association sends letters to property owners informing them about the effort to combat this noxious weed.

Benitez said park staff is willing to remove the fountain grass for HOVE residents or give them guidance in how to properly do the removal themselves. He also encouraged those interested to participate in future work days, be careful about the plants they decide to plant or keep at their properties, and to engage others in the effort.

To get involved or for more information, call Benitez at 985-6085 or Robinson at 939-7033.