US Ag official, Hirono tour East Hawaii

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U.S. Agriculture Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden and U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono got a firsthand look Wednesday at two major problems facing Hawaii Island’s forests as they stood on a dirt road near Pu‘u Kali‘u in Puna.

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U.S. Agriculture Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden and U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono got a firsthand look Wednesday at two major problems facing Hawaii Island’s forests as they stood on a dirt road near Pu‘u Kali‘u in Puna.

On one side of the road, several fast-growing and invasive albizia trees towered over the native vegetation, while on the other, dozens of ohia trees were withering away because of a disease that has been devastating island forests throughout the past few years.

“When you see something like this, it’s terrifying,” explained Mililani Browning, natural resources manager for Kamehameha Schools.

The disease, known as Rapid Ohia Death, is thought to be the result of a pathogen that could have been introduced from abroad.

The trip to the forest near Leilani Estates was one of several stops in East Hawaii for Harden, who Hirono invited to hear about agriculture and forestry issues unique to the state.

Invasive species played a major role in the trip that also included stops at Green Point Nursery, Hawaiian Shores, the Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center, and the Pahoa solid waste transfer station, where they learned about the June 27 lava flow and the effect of vog on farming.

Harden said her role was to learn more about the impact of introduced pests and other issues facing the island to better inform policymakers in Washington, D.C. The volume of invasive species on the island was eye-opening, she said.

“We’ve seen some devastation here,” Harden said. “… You read about it, you hear about it but seeing it, talking to producers who are dealing with these very tough issues, it’s been a real eye-opening, enlightening morning so far.”

She said it’s important for the federal government to be flexible and creative when addressing invasive species in Hawaii, which deals with them more than any other state.

“It’s not going to be just that cookie-cutter answer that’s going to help them,” Harden said.

Albizia trees came up more than once as residents and researchers explained the devastating impact the fast-growing and brittle trees have on forests and infrastructure.

“It’s a management issue that has seen no management before,” said Flint Hughes, a U.S. Forest Service ecologist.

The trees were a topic again at a meeting in Hawaiian Shores, where Hawaii County Councilman Greggor Ilagan discussed ways to get the private sector involved in harvesting the trees. One idea was to turn them into chopsticks.

Ilagan also brought up the issue of genetically modified crops, over which the Agriculture Department has oversight. He said he supports GMO and non-GMO agriculture but asked if the department could help with educating the public on transgenic crops.

“I don’t believe we need a blanket ban,” he said, in reference to Hawaii County’s law restricting the use of genetically modified crops. “If we stop science, we will never advance. We will always stay stagnant.”

Harden didn’t comment on the law but noted the “rigorous testing” of transgenic crops. She said the department supports all types of agriculture, including organic, but was concerned about people not trusting the science of biotechnology.

“It’s very important we don’t turn our back on science,” Harden said, adding it will become more difficult to feed the world’s growing population.

“I’m all for organic farmers who can find a market,” she said. “It’s very, very difficult to feed the world on organics.”

At Green Point Nursery near Hilo, representatives of the floral industry discussed the problem of invasive species and international competition. A major concern was an effort by Taiwan to ship potted oncidium orchids, which Hawaii growers have a niche market.

Russell Kuwaye of Hilo Hawaiian Orchids said it would take years for another niche market to be developed if they were undercut by cheaper flowers from other countries.

“From the breeding end to blooming, it’s a 10-year process,” he said.

As a daughter of farmers, Harden said she understood their situation.

“If you love the land and you love agriculture, there’s nothing but agriculture,” she said.

Hirono noted it’s not often for high-ranking federal officials to meet with people on the ground like this in Hawaii.

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“It takes a lot for them to make a commitment the way Secretary Harden has,” she said. “… Any time I can get any of them to come to Hawaii, believe me, they leave with an understanding of the unique challenges we face in agriculture and just about everything. But the other important thing is they experience the people here.”

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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