COVID-19 Crisis Could Derail — Or Bolster — Conservation Efforts

The virus has left environmental funding uncertain, but local groups hope stimulus dollars can create thousands of green jobs.
Honolulu Civil Beat - June 19, 2020
Marcel Honore

Trae Menard and his team spend much of their time building fences in Hawaii’s upper watersheds to guard against feral pigs, goats and other hoofed invaders.

They sweep for invasive weeds and other plants harmful to the local ecology, stopping them before they can spread.

“It’s kind of like a virus — early detection, rapid response,” Menard, The Nature Conservancy’s local director of forest conservation, recently noted.

Last Wednesday, the team joined a meeting on what happens if the public and private funding sources that allow them to help protect the islands’ water supplies dry up due to COVID-19. Their 20 or so members manage 40,000 acres across Hawaii.

“We’re going to do the best we can do with what we have,” Menard said afterward, adding that fencing and fire prevention will be their top priorities.

“We need to keep some funding going into this, because if we can’t maintain it we’ll be losing a lot.”

The pandemic has, for now, decimated Hawaii’s tourism-dependent economy — leaving about a quarter of its labor force jobless based on official counts. Local conservation groups and some lawmakers further worry the so-called “pancession” could deplete what limited public and private funding was there before to help protect the islands’ natural resources.

However, those groups also see a chance to nearly double the state’s green jobs through a new statewide “conservation corps,” launched with pandemic recovery dollars. The state’s renewable energy sector has taken a hit but appears poised overall to weather COVID-19. And some other habitat projects have been hurt by the virus.

The Legislature, meanwhile, will be forced to make tough choices on what programs get the scant dollars available when it reconvenes next week.

“I definitely am concerned about that, and we need to come to grips with that reality,” said Sen. Mike Gabbard, who chairs the Senate Agriculture and Environment Committee.

Gabbard, as well as other local officials and advocates, has expressed hope to create something like a Hawaii conservation corps.

It could give many out-of-work hospitality employees the chance to switch careers, joining a sector that’s not as vulnerable to economic swings, they say. With stimulus dollars in play, the idea isn’t just pie in the sky, they add — it’s possible.

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