More firebreaks sought to protect palila habitat on Maunakea
A proposed project by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources would expand firebreaks on Maunakea in order to protect an endangered bird.
The Maunakea Fuelbreak Maintenance Project, which will be discussed at today’s meeting of the Board of Land and Natural Resources, would improve upon about 30 miles of firebreaks within the Maunakea Forest Reserve and Game Management Area in order to reduce the risk of wildfire within the sole natural habitat of the critically endangered palila.
The palila, or Hawaiian honeycreeper, only lives on the southwestern slopes of the mountain. A 2021 study estimated that there were only 678 of the birds remaining in the wild, although a DLNR description of the project this month placed that number at fewer than 300.
According to that DLNR description, a concerted effort by the department to eradicate sheep and goats from the palila’s habitat over the last three decades has been largely successful, but has had the unintended consequence of increasing the amount of flammable vegetation in the area.
That has heightened the risk of wildfire, “perhaps the greatest threat to palila critical habitat.”
A fire in 2018 near the Keamuku Maneuver Area destroyed about 250 acres of palila habitat and was stopped because of a firebreak, which is a gap cut in the vegetation. The project being considered today would expand the firebreaks by clearing vegetation up to 10 meters away from various roads within the state-owned forest reserve.
According to a report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which would fund the project, the area of the project — 10 meters of vegetation on both sides of 30 miles of existing roads — totals approximately 238 acres, which would take an estimated two years to clear. No cost estimate was included in that report.
Additionally, another 117 miles of road will be subject to further maintenance, mainly the clearing of low, nonnative vegetation.
After the initial clearing, FWS reports that maintenance will occur frequently enough to prevent new trees and other vegetation from growing within the buffer area. Only trees with trunks within the 10-meter buffer area will be cut, not those whose canopies overhang the buffer area.
A statement by FWS biologist Lindsy Asman reported that the clearing project is anticipated to begin in 2023, but will take place outside of the reproductive seasons for the Hawaiian hoary bat and other native birds in order to avoid interfering with those endangered species.
“Recent fires at the Ka‘ohe Game Management area demonstrated how vulnerable the area is to catastrophic loss from fire,” Asman wrote. “We support the DLNR keeping Maunakea whole through fire management, and preserving the ecosystem and the natural and cultural heritage of Maunakea by ensuring fire risk is minimized.”
When the matter is brought up to the BLNR today the DLNR’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife also will recommend that the project is made exempt from the need for an environmental assessment because of presumed minimal impact.
Email Michael Brestovansky at firstname.lastname@example.org.