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The Wildfires in Hawaii Are a Loss for Our World

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The wildfire created by the recent eruption of the Kilauea volcano on the Island of Hawaii has already burned some 2,000 acres in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, home to 23 species of endangered plants and 6 endangered birds. Because this fire now threatens a relatively pristine native rain forest that is home to Hawaii's famous happyface spiders and honeycreeper songbirds, Park officials are quite rightly doing everything they can to stop it.

As a whole, Hawaii is a globally important paradise that is dying on our watch. Three quarters of all the bird and plant extinctions in the US have occurred within these islands, and one third of America's threatened and endangered birds and plants now reside within this state.

Despite the islands' volcanic origin and on-going volcanic activity, many native ecosystems apparently did not contain enough vegetation to carry fire much beyond the edges of the lava flows themselves, so most Hawaiian species lack adaptations to withstand fires. Consequently, unlike many mainland natural areas, where conservationists often use fire to control weeds and reestablish native species and ecosystem processes, in Hawaii, we mostly fight rather than light fires.

Because Hawaii is also inundated with noxious alien species that can invade and displace even relatively intact stands of native vegetation, we rarely can afford to "let nature take its course" and allow even naturally generated wildfires like this one destroy remnant native communities. Indeed, Volcanoes National Park is currently infested with hundreds of alien species, some of which are capable of drastically altering basic ecosystem processes. For example, North African fountain grass promotes and then exploits fires in areas that rarely burned before such weeds established in these islands. Over my years of working as a research ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service in Hawaii, I watched fountain grass repeatedly rise up like a green phoenix after ecologically devastating wildfires and rapidly establish in what to this species is a very favorable postfire environment of increased light and nutrients and decreased plant competition. The net result of these fires is a spiraling cycle of ever-more fountain grass and other weeds and less native species and ecosystems.

As this present wildfire aptly demonstrates, merely preserving vast natural areas like Volcanoes National Park is a necessary but no longer sufficient conservation strategy. Saving what remains of Hawaii's (and increasingly, the rest of the world's) native species and natural areas now requires controlling alien species and implementing ecological restoration programs to assist the recovery of degraded ecosystems. Thanks largely to their pioneering and tireless efforts in these areas, this Park remains a world-class biological jewel where people can still experience a mind-bending diversity of unique ecosystems and species such as the charismatic nene goose, hawksbill sea turtle, and Mauna Loa silversword. As one of the Park's resource managers recently told me, "Sure, there are times when it all seems overwhelming and pointless. But because we've mucked it up, we have a moral obligation to try and fix things, and we've proved here that with enough thought and effort, anything is possible."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Robert J. Cabin is an associate professor of ecology and environmental science at Brevard College. Before returning to academia, he worked as a restoration ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service and the National Tropical Botanical Garden. His new book Intelligent Tinkering: Bridging the Gap between Science and Practice will be published in August 2011 by Island Press.

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