Hawaii’s Watershed Moment: Killing Trees to Save Water

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BY SYDNEY ROSS SINGER – As Hawaii residents struggle to feed their families, the Governor of Hawaii has just announced a new $110 million war on invasive species, spending $11 million per year to weed the forests of “undesirable” plants and animals, including food resources, over the next ten years.

The alleged excuse for this war is to protect our water resources. According to one study at UH, the nonnative strawberry guava tree uses 27% more water than native o’hia, although strangely not mentioned is that strawberry guava is highly drought resistant, making it suitable for our increasingly drought prone islands. Nevertheless, selling off of the fear of water loss, it is now being stated that all nonnative plants consume more water than native plants.


It may not be logical or scientific. But it is the best public relations that the people promoting this war could come up with, and the Governor bought it.

According to Governor Abercrombie in a speech at a meeting of the Society of American Foresters, as quoted by AP in the Hawaii Tribune-Herald last week, “This is going to go statewide, island by island. We’re going to be relentless,” the governor said. “This is going to be our war. This is going to be our focus. We’re going to be relentless. We’re not going to stop until it’s done.”

Of course, the job will never be “done”. As any gardener knows, weeding never ends. If we are turning our “wild” places into native botanical gardens, then they are no longer “wild”, and our work will never end. But it does mean job security for the pest control community.

However, this war on our forests won’t be easy. Despite government war plans, the forests are evolving according to Nature’s plan, reacting to climate change, land development, and introduced species by allowing the fittest to survive. What we see in our forests today is different from what was there decades or centuries ago. There has been change. Introduced species are in our current forests because current conditions favor them.

Unfortunately, the forest managers have different values than Nature. They want to kill the species that Nature is nurturing.

History has shown, however, that habitat restoration efforts are notorious for failing to achieve their goals, and for creating new problems in their wake. Invasive species eradication and control efforts are coming under increased criticism by scientists and scholars around the world.

And as a result of climate change, you can’t know whether the native species that are being protected will survive into the future. Native species may be doomed by nature despite all our efforts. Introduced species that are thriving may be tomorrow’s valuable species. Isn’t it better to have forests that are healthy, than sick native forests?

This war will also harm private property owners who enjoy some of the species that are being attacked as “invasive”. The main target is the ornamental fruit tree, strawberry guava, whose hardwood is valuable and whose fruit is considered a superfood. This species, introduced to Hawaii in the early 1800’s and broadly distributed and enjoyed throughout the islands, is targeted by the government for infestation by alien scale bugs that will gall the leaves and sicken, if not kill, the trees, leaving hundreds of thousands of acres of dead and disease trees in our forests and on private property. The government may have to reimburse property owners for damages, adding to the State’s unsustainable financial liabilities.

But is this all about water, or is this also about food? After all, this war is targeting wild plants and animals that serve as food.

Of course, introduced fruit trees, such as strawberry guava, will use more water than non-fruiting native trees. But there is more to trees than just how much water they consume. All trees provide important environmental services. Fruit trees also feed wildlife and people, which native species do not.

Unfortunately, wildlife, such as pigs, deer, goats, sheep are also on the hit list. In the past they were introduced for food, hunting, and weed control. But now, they are maligned as “invasive” pests, digging mud holes and eating grass and shoots, and some of these shoots could be native plants. This, we are told, is damaging our water supply.

Naturally, there will be those who profit from this war, especially those who produce the chemical arsenal that will be used. Agricultural interests may also benefit from the destruction of our wild foods, since wild food are free.

Clearly, there are lots of questions that need answering:

  • Even if we save the weak native species in the forests, will they survive climate change? Species traditionally found in an area may no longer be able to survive the climate changes in that area. (We would be attempting to save the weak species while destroying the strong ones.)
  • Which species should be removed from the forests? Who will decide on what species are “undesirable”?
  • What methods will be used? How many tons of poisons will be sprayed on our watershed?
  • Will private property and non-target species be damaged from biocontrol introductions?
  • Will there be increased run-off and erosion as our forests are denuded of “weeds” which, in some places, are the dominant species?
  • What species will be planted for replacement, and how can we be sure they will survive better than those removed?
  • Since most restoration projects fail, why will this one succeed?
  • What will happen to wildlife, native and exotic, that currently relies on these (nonnative) food resources? How will this affect hunters and gatherers and others who enjoy this wildlife?
  • Are there better ways to manage these nonnative natural resources than to waste them? Couldn’t this $110 million be used to create a sustainable industry that harvests and utilizes these thrifty, abundant, and free natural resources?

Hopefully, the government will prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for this war plan, including discussions of alternatives. Doing a forest “makeover” will have significant impacts.

The Governor should also ask himself why, when residents are suffering from financial meltdown, foreclosures, and high food prices, he wants to spend $110,000,000 to kill “weeds” and destroy our wild food resources.





  1. Surely those funds driving deeper the national debt could be used to generate employment to help the sick and poor rather than create jobs to kill the environment and our food sources.

  2. There is so much wrong with this article that I don’t even know where to start…

    Syd, how much strawberry guava do you consume annually? (ballpark estimate) I’ld say I eat 2 pounds.

  3. This guy is really good at pushing people’s buttons. Don’t fall for it. A forest with lots of different kinds of plants is a better watershed, that’s just the way it is. I don’t know if they’re going to make it work, but if they do it right it could mean jobs for some kids who need a job and want to work outside.

  4. Oh yeah I forgot to mention that strawberry guava forests are only that, strawberry guava and not much else. That’s why it’s such a lousy watershed forest, besides sucking up so much water. Ohia grows slow and a lot of other plants grow around it and on it.

  5. Great points Sydney. I especially like the idea of developing an industry around the strawberry guava, because as you say the eradication effort is almost sure to fail, if it were to succeed at what cost to countless other species. It reminds me of the time here in California that an entire lake was poisoned just to kill one species, they had to kill everything! We need to learn that “Nature” adapts, species form new relationships, it’s not a static system that has some mythical “balance.”

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