Initiative Hopes to Save Hawaiian Ecosystems

HONOLULU--Scientists and land managers are planning a $200 million, 5-year initiative to safeguard Hawaii's remaining native habitats from development and the relentless advance of alien species. The plan, unveiled here last week at the Hawaii Conservation Conference, is getting a warm reception. "I think it's dynamite," says William Everett, president of the Endangered Species Recovery Council in La Jolla, California.

Formed from volcanic eruptions, the Hawaiian archipelago, like other island chains, has a breathtaking variety of species--many found nowhere else on Earth--that evolved from a few hardy pioneers. But after 1500 years or so of human habitation, the islands have lost two-thirds of their native forests and countless species. Indeed, Hawaii has more federally listed threatened or endangered species--297--than any other state.

Major culprits in the decline of Hawaiian biodiversity are introduced species such as weeds and feral pigs that prey on the natives or flourish in the absence of predators. But while a decade-long slump in tourism has resulted in scant state support for conservation programs, not all the news from the front lines is bad: For instance, managers are making inroads against a particularly nasty invasive plant called miconia, and fences erected around preserves have helped reduce populations of pigs, goats, and other unwanted animals.

Hoping to parlay such successes into an ambitious program to protect more species across larger swathes of land, a panel composed of representatives from several federal and state agencies and the University of Hawaii, Manoa--the major players that manage or study Hawaiian species--drafted Legacy 2000. Among other things, the initiative calls for $5 million a year for grants for community-based conservation efforts, $3 million a year for grants for academic research on Hawaiian ecosystems, and $4 million a year for a slate of programs to find Hawaii's rarest species, bolster endangered species through captive propagation, and create a plant germplasm storage network.

But for the initiative's architects, the hard work has only just begun: They must find a way to pay for it. "It will have to be a manna-from-heaven situation," admits Robert Smith, Pacific Islands Ecoregion manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And the clock is ticking. "This is a pretty scary time for us," says Hawaii State Department of Land and Natural Resources administrator Michael Buck. "If we don't get the resources" to protect the native ecosystems, he says, "we may never get another chance."