$10M plan would target rapid ohia death

Honolulu Star Advertiser - December 6, 2016
Kevin Dayton

A $10 million response plan to combat rapid ohia death, a fast-moving fungal infection killing millions of ohia trees, will include funding allotted for public outreach and research. Ohia trees with the disease are shown on Hawaii island.

Experts in the campaign to combat the rapid ohia death that has killed millions of trees across Hawaii island have unveiled a $10 million strategic response plan to cope with the disease over the next three years.

The plan was announced at a daylong summit on rapid ohia death at the state Capitol on Wednesday in an effort to pique the interest of state lawmakers who are preparing for the 2017 session that begins next month. Supporters hope to raise money for the strategic plan from state, federal and private sources.

Rapid ohia death is caused by two types of fungus that attack ohia trees through tears or cuts in the tree bark, blocking the flow of moisture inside the trunk. Infected trees can die within weeks of showing their first symptoms, and the disease has now killed trees on about 50,000 acres of ohia forest on Hawaii island.

The disease has been found in the southern portion of the island, from Kona to Kau to Puna, and was also recently detected in a single tree in Hamakua.

Those types of fungus have not been found anywhere else in the world, and the disease has not yet spread to any other island. Robert Hauff of the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife said it “probably is inevitable” that the disease will spread to other counties eventually, but authorities are urging the public not to move ohia from one island to another.

The state Board of Agriculture has imposed a quarantine that bans the movement of ohia plants and plant parts between the islands.

“For most invasive species, it’s a matter of time, so I don’t want to paint too rosy of a picture, but the more time that we can buy to learn about the disease, then the better chance we have in eradicating it when it shows up, so I think it’s really important that we delay that introduction to the other islands,” said Hauff, who is a state protection forester.

Hauff said the rapid ohia death strategic plan is a road map for agencies to follow as they cope with the threat posed by the disease on each of the islands.

The plan proposes to spend $1.66 million on public outreach over the next three years as well as $3.3 million to help land managers to detect the disease and to try to control its spread. Ohia is an important component of the Hawaiian culture, and the plan would also set aside $360,000 over three years for cultural engagement to help develop protocols for traditional practices such as forest gathering or ceremony that help address the new threat posed by the disease.

The plan also budgets $4.4 million for research over the next three years to determine how the disease spreads and how far it has reached, and to try to develop ways to treat it.

Even if the plan is fully funded, “we’re not going to be able to eradicate it,” Hauff said, adding, “What we’re hoping to do is slow it and contain it, and protect the forests that remain healthy. It’s going to be a very long-term thing that natural resource managers in Hawaii are going to be dealing with for a decade.”

About 90 percent of the ohia forest on Hawaii island is still free of the disease.

State Sen. Mike Gabbard (D, Kapolei-Makakilo), who will be the chairman of the Senate Agriculture and Environment Committee next year, said he expects state lawmakers will help fund the strategic plan because they understand the potential economic and environmental impacts from rapid ohia death and invasive species are huge.

“It’s super important, and I think we’ll be looking to dedicate some funding for that,” Gabbard said of the strategic plan.