Eradicating ‘superweed’ is an information war

Editor’s note: This is the final installment of a two-part story on efforts to eradicate the Australian tree fern from the island of Kaua‘i. The first part was in yesterday’s edition.

In addition to combating the invasive Australian tree fern using herbicides, an information war has been launched.

Jackie Kozak, the Kaua‘i community outreach person for the Hawai‘i Invasive Species Council, works with the public and individuals within the green industry to educate them on the dangers invasive species such as the Australian tree fern pose. One of her main goals has been to get invasive plants removed from local nurseries.

“If we have people spending tons of money and resources to control an invasive species in the mountains, its a counteractive community if that same species is being sold by nurseries in the lowlands,” said Kozak. “You can’t just have natural resource managers working on their own. If the public is not aware of the problem or the green industry isn’t onboard, its going to be a moot cause.”

Though similar in appearance to the native hapu‘u tree fern, the invasive Australian tree fern is far more aggressive, faster-growing and taller than its local cousin. The invasive fern can be identified by its white, papery scales that line its trunk. Hapu‘u tree ferns only have red hair-like protrusions.

The Kaua‘i Landscaping Industry Council, a group of businesses and individuals from the landscaping industry, has become a leader in the fight. Last year, KLIC became the second organization in the state to agree to voluntary codes of conduct among members of the green industry to participate in the fight against invasive species through self-regulation. The Australian tree fern is one of several popular yet problematic plants that has been phased out of its inventory.

“We helped create the problem” said Lelan Nishek, owner of Kaua‘i Nursery and Landscaping and one of the founders of the Kaua‘i Landscape Industry Council. “We have a responsibility to help solve it.”

Other plants that are part of the voluntary ban include rubbervine, smokebush, butterfly bush, pampas grass, mule’s foot fern and glorybush.

The process to remove invasives from non-KLIC stores, many of which have their operations based somewhere other than Kaua‘i, has taken longer, but last fall stores such as Wal-Mart, Kmart and Home Depot stopped carrying the Australian tree fern completely.

Kozak is also working to educate local business owners that incorporate Australian tree ferns into their landscaping, still a common sight at local banks, shopping centers, even the Lihu‘e Airport.

“People want to have nice gardens, but they don’t want their gardens to be negatively impacting the forest,” said Kozak. “I think awareness is the key.”

In April, the NTBG, KLIC and HISC sponsored a community meeting in Hanalei to discuss the Australian tree fern issue with the public. That meeting is scheduled to air on Ho‘ike later this month.

In addition to the harm the Australian tree fern can cause the island’s ecosystem, Menard points out that there is a cultural aspect to the issue as well.

“A lot of the plants and animals that are in this forest have Hawaiian names. The Hawaiians named them centuries ago. They’re an important part of the culture. To lose that would be tragic on a cultural level, tragic on a hydrologic level, tragic on an ecologic level.”

Wichman said that a damaged native forest affects native Hawaiian practitioners.

“The health and diversity of our native forest is essential to native practitioners who depend on it for cultural resources. The diverse forests that make up the core of the watershed on Kaua‘i is considered Wao Akua, a place inhabited by the spirits. Many of the plants and animals found in Wao Akua are considered by Hawaiian practitioners to be kinolau, physical embodiments of spirits. As such, the protection of the diverse native forest in the core of our watersheds is considered critical to Hawaiian practitioners even though they many never directly access this area for resources.”

According to Menard, the scope of the problem is so massive that the current goal is to simply “hold the line” in the island’s most sensitive areas.

“We’ll never eradicate this plant,” said Menard. “What the Kaua‘i Watershed Alliance is proposing to do is protect that last remaining core in the center of the island where the Australian tree fern is just now starting to get into.”

Wichman’s outlook is slightly more optimistic.

“If you look at the last 100 years and the advancement of technology and the tools this new technology has given to resource managers, I can’t help but believe that in another 20 to 50 years we will have tools that we can’t even imagine today which will help us maintain and even restore our unique forests.

“However, we need to do our part now so that these future resource managers have something left to work with.”

• Todd A. Vines is the associate editor of Essential Kaua‘i, Kaua‘i Publishing Company’s visitor publication. He can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 256) or tvines@kauaipubco.com.

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