Monday, Dec. 04, 2023|
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Courtesy photo — Coconut rhinoceros beetle grubs found in Waikoloa in October.
A controversial revision of state rules regarding interisland transportation of plants was rejected Friday.
The Hawaii Department of Agriculture’s Advisory Committee on Plants and Animals met Friday to discuss a series of rule changes concerning the department’s ability to restrict the interisland movement of plants and other products, including soil and compost, that are known to be infested with invasive pests.
Franny Brewer, manager of the Big Island Invasive Species Committee, said that several years ago, a review of the DOA’s rules revealed that the department has no way to actually stop the transport of a plant carrying a pest.
Brewer said that at least one plant nursery in Waimanalo was known to be selling and transporting plants infested with little fire ants earlier this year, but the DOA was incapable of blocking their transport.
Meanwhile, Brewer said, the department’s existing rules are woefully out-of-date, not mentioning any of the invasive pests that have more recently found a foothold in the state.
Maxx Phillips, Hawaii director and staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said many of these more recent pests — including the coconut rhinoceros beetle, which was discovered on the Big Island for the first time in October — can have devastating impacts on local flora.
“The rhinoceros beetle has been horrible for the coconut trees on Guam,” Phillips said, explaining that at least 25% of those trees have been damaged in some way by the beetle. “That’s the canary in the coal mine for what it could do to us.”
At a February meeting of the state Board of Agriculture, a series of proposed rule changes was introduced, clarifying the DOA can prohibit the transportation of “pest host material” between or within islands without treatment or authorization by a plant regulatory official.
However, despite support for these new rules from conservation groups, no further movement was made on them for months.
When the new rules eventually resurfaced, they did so in a weaker form at last week’s Advisory Committee on Plants and Animals.
“They did nothing to prevent intraisland transportation,” Brewer said. “They didn’t even mention little fire ants … nobody understood why, we were all asking them to just go back to the version we all liked.”
Phillips said DOA staff eventually admitted that they had privately discussed the February proposed rules with nursery industry representatives, who said that some of the proposed revisions were “deal-breakers” for their businesses.
“So, it’s a case of private interests and for-profit industries stepping on public welfare,” Phillips said.
The Center for Biological Diversity, along with more than 20 other community organizations, signed a letter Friday urging Gov. Josh Green to direct the DOA to move forward with implementing the February revisions.
The outcry from these organizations appears to have worked. Brewer said the Friday meeting of the Advisory Committee on Plants and Animals began with the committee withdrawing the weaker version of the revised rules, and assuring that the DOA will be committed to the February revisions going forward.
“There were 66 pieces of written testimony submitted to the meeting,” Brewer said. “People were very engaged on the subject, and it’s nice to see democracy in action.”
The next steps in the process are unclear. Phillips said additional public meetings for the February rules are expected, although no dates have been set, and with the holiday season approaching, are not likely to take place before 2024.
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