State’s java plum tree removal work sparks social media unrest

State officials and West Maui community members are trying to decide the fate of the java plum trees that caused a stir on social media last week.

The video that Kihei resident Shad Sollars posted to his Facebook page showed a grove of java plum trees cut down to the stumps, the trunks lying alongside the path that oceangoers take to Honolua Bay. The clip made it onto the nightly news, sparked upset on social media and prompted an apology from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, which said it had to remove the trees for safety reasons and apologized that its “initial outreach efforts may not have been as thorough as some would have liked.”

Department staff and community members visited the site Monday to discuss the next steps. Tamara Paltin, president of the Save Honolua Coalition, wasn’t happy with how the situation was handled, but thinks there’s a positive side to it.

“I think it is a good opportunity for the native plants and things to take root — and for better communication with the DLNR,” Paltin said. “There’s nothing that can be done to undo what has been done.”

Paltin said she remembered some community meetings in which the department had mentioned the safety measures it planned to take — creating signage, installing barricades or boulders so cars wouldn’t go over cliffs and tree trimming. However, the department didn’t go into details about when and to what extent the trimming would take place, she said.

According to the department, the Land Division met several times with community groups to discuss the plan to remove hazardous trees, branches and limbs along a 60-foot-wide, 350-foot-long trail corridor from the highway to Honolua Bay — a project the state Legislature had appropriated funds for. The department said it also spoke with professional arborists before having the invasive java plum trees removed earlier this month, “as they were deemed potentially hazardous to public health and safety should they fall or break.” Java plums are extremely top heavy, and “wet branches and limbs as large as 8 inches in diameter can easily break off and create a hazard for anyone walking beneath,” the department said in a statement Monday.

Paltin agreed the trees were a hazard. She said during the site visit, Les Potts, a surfer and Save Honolua Coalition member who leads cleanups of Honolua Bay, pointed out some large logs that had fallen down on the trail before the java plum removal project.

“A lot of people feel that it’s not a safety hazard, but seeing the size and diameter of the logs that had fallen across the trail in the past, it really is a safety concern,” Paltin said.

Paltin said she hopes to see the felled logs mulched and used as ground cover to prevent the now-exposed dirt from eroding during rains. She also hopes native plants can be brought in, also to reduce sedimentation. The department said that “replanting, a community stewardship or garden project” are some of the options.

As for funding, West Maui state Rep. Angus McKelvey said Monday that “unless there was an emergency appropriation by the governor or the department could shift funds someplace else, theoretically it could sit undone until next year, next summer when we secure the money for the budget.” He added that a quicker option might be to “work with the community and try to do some kind of volunteer thing.”

McKelvey, who snapped a photo of the gaping hole in the canopy during a flight, was also upset with how the department handled the tree removal and said there should’ve been a clear plan to replace the java plum trees.

“I think the way they went about it was destructive and overboard,” he said. “I agree with them if there’s need, you’ve got to do maintenance, and you have to do limb control, and there has to be a plan for removing invasives, but it has to be a methodical one that the community knows about, and it has to be the least invasive (plan) possible.”

In its apology, the department added that Chairwoman Suzanne Case “has reminded all divisions to conduct additional community/stakeholder/public outreach on projects that may change from time of inception.”

Paltin said one thing she hopes will come out of the situation is for the department to create an on-island representative who would be “like a community engagement liaison” and hold quarterly meetings to keep people in the loop on future projects.

“Having a quarterly meeting doesn’t mean the community is automatically going to get its way, but it gives us a chance to possibly input solutions that may not have been thought of,” Paltin said. “DLNR is coming in like, ‘I have a job to do. I have money to spend. I have a deadline.’ But they’re not taking into account the bigger picture that the community sees. So I think we would all benefit from that type of sit-down.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at