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Nonprofits tackle conservation work through CARES funds

Program creates 70 temporary jobs on Maui, Molokai

Workers of nonprofit Na Moku ‘Aupuni O Ko’olau Hui in Keanae learn how to collect water quality data that will help with watershed management and stream maintenance in the future. — Photo courtesy of Maui Nui Marine Resource Council

With much-needed funding and labor, seven Maui County conservation nonprofits made major progress late last year in preserving cultural and natural resources, improving food security and restoring previously lost infrastructure.

The Maui County Office of Economic Development and federal CARES Act funding supported an employment and workforce training program that created about 70 new temporary jobs for Maui and Molokai residents who lost their jobs due to COVID-19.

“I’m super proud of the results of every single one of these guys, it’s a chicken-skin moment for every one of them,” said Ekolu Lindsey of the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council, which hosted a free Zoom presentation on the program Wednesday night.

The resource council helped to manage the funding offered through the MauiCARES Task Force after it was secured Oct. 1, as well as the rapid employment of the new hires, who worked for six weeks in November and December on land and shoreline restoration projects in Olowalu, Waihee, Keanae, Kipahulu, Hana and Molokai.

The total amount of funding allocated for the projects was unavailable; $20 million was spent on all MauiCARES Task Force-recommended projects, which was split into six sectors, including an environmental sector.

East Maui nonprofit Na Mamo o Mu’olea completed the removal of overgrown invasive plants in November that swallowed an ancient rock wall listed on the state historic registry. — Photo courtesy of Maui Nui Marine Resource Council

All of the projects were rooted in Hawaiian cultural practices and values, Lindsey said.

Ke Ao Hali’i in Hana worked on removing invasive weeds, restoring native seabird habitats and repairing fences for feral animal mitigation on about 28 acres of land in Mokae/Kaholaiki obtained through the Maui County Open Space Fund and the state Legacy Land Conservation program. They also worked on another 2 acres above Hamoa Beach.

“We are involved with protecting the coastal lands in Hana and preserving the lands for future generations forever,” said the nonprofit’s vice chairman, John “Irish” O’Hara, during the presentation Wednesday night.

Funding went toward eight paid positions for two high school students and six Hana residents, as well as the purchase of tools and equipment. Several volunteers were also involved.

“We not only wanted them to work, we wanted them to experience the land and we wanted them to know what conservation was about,” O’Hara said. “We mahalo (the resource council) for giving Ke Ao Hali’i the incentive and the urgency and for the opportunity to actually execute our land management plan.

“Because of the funds we obtained, we did it, and now we know how to move forward with experience that was provided to our management and our board of directors.”

Their project also included GPS training and mapping, cultural and historical education and a biological survey of opihi.

On Molokai, Ka Honua Momona worked to restore two ancient fishponds, with the goal to teach and train the next generation about environmental stewardship, to farm and harvest fish for the community, to care for the land and to protect the reefs through proper sediment trapping.

“Through our programming, we try to take the seeds of the best practices, from Western best practices, plant them in Hawaiian ecosystem ecological soil and nourish them love and variance of our ancestors and try to grow these new native models,” said Noelani Lee, project manager. “I think of this change and a move towards a more equitable society, these things are important.”

Lee noted that a lot of work and time is still required for nonprofits to continue their conservation plans.

“While we are so grateful for the work that we were able to do this past fall, and inspired by our six other partners’ work we got to see weekly, we’d like to acknowledge that these are extraordinary groups doing extraordinary work,” she said.

Hawaiian Islands Land Trust in Waihee worked to remove invasive species from Kalepa Stream to help reduce sediment discharge in the nearshore waters off Waihee and protect offshore corals, a project that employed 32 people.

Waihee Coastal Dunes and Wetlands Refuge encompasses 277 acres, including 105 acres of sand dunes, 27 acres of wetlands and two streams — Waihee and Kalepa.

“Basically our goal is to heal and restore the land and improve its resilience to climate change and other natural disturbances,” said Scott Fisher, chief conservation officer. “So our goal is to restore degraded ecosystems and strengthen the relationships within the community.”

Land trust crews removed overgrown grass and invasive species, and restored regular stream flow.

“It was very challenging work,” Fisher said. “But I think the enthusiasm that the workers showed is a testament to the deep sense of aloha aina that comes from really caring for the land, so that was the biggest takeaway message that we really learned.”

For the second phase of the project, they want to install sediment retention barriers, plant indigenous species and begin measuring water quality.

Funding also helped create five paid positions at Kipahulu ‘Ohana, which improved a wetland taro patch at Kapahu Living Farm by focusing on water management, planting, weeding and tree trimming.

The taro plants will help slow the flow of any stormwater that would typically carry sediment out to sea and pollute the marine ecosystem in East Maui.

“In order to have a good wetland taro, you need a good steady supply of fresh cold water, so one of the other things that we did under this was helping to maintain and doing some improvements on our main 4-inch waterline that brings water into the farm,” said Executive Director Scott Crawford.

Founded in 1995, Kipahulu ‘Ohana also focuses on education and sustainability, community shoreline management, animal control fencing and invasive plant removal in the Kipahulu forest.

Duane Sparkman of the Kipuka Olowalu project in West Maui said that the CARES Act funding created 20 paid jobs and opened volunteer opportunities.

“The age level was youngsters to people in their 40s, and it was just an amazing culmination of the community that could come together and make this project happen,” Sparkman said. “The best part about this project is it’s organic. We are not using any pesticides, we’re not using any herbicides, we’re going 100 percent safe. There’s nothing going to be put on the reef from this project.”

The amount of work was intimidating in the beginning, he said, but the crew made major progress over the first two-week span, clearing invasive plants and overgrown dry shrubs that could become a fire hazard.

The project also included the restoration of washed out, damaged and overgrown kalo fields. They rebuilt and prepared lo’i for planting in the Olowalu Cultural Reserve, as well as creating organic ag lands, a starter table for saplings and herbs, an irrigation system, seed stock forests and a games lawn for keiki to play on or to dance hula.

Workers were educated on agriculture and economic development.

“It’s really incredible to continue this legacy,” Sparkman said. “When you have the opportunity to get paid to do something that you love, you are more productive than you would ever be.”

Na Moku Aupuni O Ko’olau Hui in Keanae worked on watershed management and stream maintenance within the East Maui Irrigation system.

Funding to the nonprofit created 12 jobs for East Maui residents, who worked in two teams to clear debris from the trails and clogged water systems.

“Our goal for our Ko’olau Watershed project was to make sure our streams are adequately maintained and flowing as well as collecting accurate data to be able to present to our farmers, the appropriate audience, and the general public in a useful way,” spokesperson Nicole Inouye-Nohara said.

Inouye-Nohara said that they formed relationships with different professionals who taught them how to measure and collect water quality data in the streams and lo’i farms.

Using the Natural Resource Data Solutions ‘Aina mobile app, the nonprofit has now been collecting “a lot of valuable data for our community,” she said.

“Throughout this project we’ve been able to learn from each other because we have a lot of people who grew up in Wailuanui and Keanae, and some of us who haven’t been able to grow up out there, we are able to learn a lot about our streams and the connections between streams,” she added.

Another East Maui-focused organization, Na Mamo o Mu’olea, strives to restore and maintain Mu’olea’s natural, cultural, historical and marine resources on more than 20 acres of county land in East Maui for which the program has a 50-year lease.

In a prerecorded message, Claudia Kalaola, who sits on Na Mamo o Mu’olea’s board of directors, said that the six weeks of funding helped crews “with the essential first steps of honoring our aina.”

The nonprofit completed the removal of overgrown invasive plants that swallowed an ancient rock wall that is listed on the state historic registry. Clearing the wall allows it to be assessed for future restoration.

“The rock wall was literally choking to death by invasive Christmas berry, pink berry, java plums, banyan and much, much more,” Kalaola said. “Root systems destabilized the wall’s foundation and that damaged many areas of the wall.

“Now that we can see the wall in its entirety, we are amazed but not surprised by the architectural expertise and abilities of our ancestors.”

In addition, they restored two heiau on the property, landscaped and installed 2,000 feet of hog wire fencing to protect native trees and plants and to control feral animals.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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