Friday, November 30, 2007

Amazing upper Wainiha Valley set for protection

The Nature Conservancy of Hawai'i has teamed up with landowner Alexander & Baldwin to actively protect one of the most remote, stunningly beautiful pieces of Hawai'i—the upper Wainiha Valley.

This region, deep in the center of Kaua'i, is protected on all sides except for its streambed by high cliffs. The plunging valleys drop directly to the cold, fast-running Wainiha stream. The only reasonable way to reach the area is via helicopter.

(Photo: This native mint Phyllostegia helleri, once thought extinct, was rediscovered in Wainiha Valley by the photographer, Ken Wood, of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, and the Nature Conservancy's Trae Menard.)

Wainiha is a 12-mile long valley, extending southward from the island's north shore and then taking a dogleg southeast to Wai'ale'ale, the mile-high bog lands at the heart of the island. The protected area includes 5,750 acres representing the half of the valley inland from the dogleg, nearest Wai'ale'ale. The reserve additionally includes 1,300 acres of the Wai'ale'ale summit and the adjacent Alaka'i Swamp plateau.

Upper Wainiha is so isolated that it is the legendary last refuge of the Hawaiian Menehune, the mythical precursors of modern Hawaiians. No one could challenge that there were Menehune in these forested hinterlands, because no one went there.

“The upper region of Wainiha is as close to pristine as any valley system can get in the Hawaiian Islands,” said Sam Gon III, Nature Conservancy senior scientist and cultural advisor.

(Photo: Wainiha Valley, by John De Mello, The Nature Conservancy)

Throughout much of wild Hawai'i, there has for decades been a paradigm of benign conservation—drawing lines around regions on maps and declaring them preserved. That has been the case with upper Wainiha, but its remoteness, not the lines on maps, have protected it—until now.

Conservancy Kaua'i program director Trae Menard cited three new threats to once-pristine Wainiha: the invasive weeds clidemia and Australian tree fern, and wild pigs.

“Australian tree fern is the biggest threat. And it’s urgent, because right now we have a narrow window of opportunity to try to get in there and control it,” Menard said.

He estimated that well within 20 years, it could be dense enough in the valley to shade out much of the native wildlife.

Controlling the invading fern is important because of how much native stuff is still living in this rugged green valley.

Wainiha is so native that most Hawai'i residents would not recognize its wildlife.

Its forests contain 127 species of endemic Hawaiian plants, 41 of them found only on Kaua'i and several of them endangered. They include the native laua'e, the thick-leaved maile-scented fern that adorned hula dancers before it became rare they they resorted to an introduced fern.

In the stream are native gobies and the endangered Newcomb's snail, a tiny aquatic animal that crawls on its rocks.

The trees provide homes for an array of native forest birds, among them the ‘elepaio, ‘apapane, ‘amakihi, ‘akikiki and akeke‘e. And Hawaiian petrels, 'ua'u, nest in the cliffs.

Conservancy executive director Suzanne Case called upper Wainiha “a treasure chest.”

The Wainiha reserve will be the third-largest private nature reserve in the state. A&B will continue to own the land, but under an agreement announced earlier this month, the Conservancy will manage it for a period of 10 years.

A&B Foundation contributed $100,000 to help fund the conservation program.

“Our company has confidence in The Nature Conservancy’s capabilities and we are pleased to partner with them to pursue our common goal of ensuring the protection of this valuable natural resource for generations to come,” said A&B chief executive officer Allen Doane.

One benefit to A&B is that complex native forest is thought to be better watershed than a forest of alien species, A&B uses the water from Waihiha to run the state's largest hydroelectric facility, its Wainiha Hydroelectric Plant.

“Protecting the native forest that is the source of that water helps insure an important renewable source of energy for the future,” Doane said.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

Conservancy press release and video:

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