The challenges are many, the work is hard and never seems to end.
But for those waging war against invasive weed species on Kauai, the sense of accomplishment is instantaneous, gratifying, and possibly even life-changing.
Kokee Resource Conservation Program is a volunteer-based organization founded in 1998 by Katie Cassel. Since then volunteers, including interns, residents and visitors, have devoted numerous hours to the effort to keep alien species from displacing native ecosystems.
“We provide about 10,000 hours per year of volunteer help in getting much-needed preservation work done,” Cassel said.
The KRCP internship program also gives participants invaluable science education and has led to employment opportunities for many former interns. More than a dozen former interns are now working for conservation agencies around the state, including eight at DLNR on Kauai alone.
“They quickly get jobs because we work with a lot of the agencies and it’s well known that our interns receive extensive training and succeed in both rugged field work and GIS skills, as well as leadership skills because we train them to supervise our volunteers,” she said.
Testimonials written by former KRCP interns clearly show how much they valued being involved in the program.
“Working in the heart of native forests everyday while being surrounded by one of the most unique ecosystems of the planet is nothing short of inspiring,” said Isaac White, who worked as a KRCP intern in summer 2011.
“You get to see and explore landscapes that have been seen by few before. It really catered to the adventurous side of me which made working everyday an exciting event,” he continued.
It has long been known and acknowledged that Hawaii has lost a significant number of flora and fauna species over the years.
“Hawaii is a biodiversity hotspot of global magnitude and is home to over 1,000 native flowering plants,” Cassel said.
Over 90 percent of them are endemic, (found only in Hawaii.) This rate is higher than anywhere else in the world. Northwest Kauai alone has over 140 different species of endangered plants.
“This ecologically rich area contains several native plant communities, including the rare Koa/‘Ohi‘a Montane Mesic Forest. The relatively pristine, high elevation bogs of the Alaka’i are truly unique in the world and highly deserve protection,” she said.
How do they determine which species are most at risk and which are the worst offenders?
The Plant Extinction Prevention Program works with endangered plants that have less than 50 left in the wild, she explained. There are over 90 of these on Kauai alone.
KRCP volunteers work with the PEPP staff Wendy Kishida and Steve Perlman to weed around these critically endangered plants.
Blackberry is considered by many people to top the list of worst offenders because of its thorns. But the Nature Conservancy ranks the Himalayan (kahili) ginger, Australian tree ferns and strawberry guava as the top weeds in the watershed.
“These can grow in dense shade, are spread by birds or wind, and create dense thickets that displace the natives. Some of these weeds, especially guava, are even allelopathic, meaning they put out a chemical toxin that kills other plants,” Cassel said.
The worst offenders vary a little geographically, also. These include clidemia, miconia, kudzu and the Tree of Heaven.
It took eight years to kill a small infestation of kudzu found near a cabin in Kokee. It also took several years to kill one Tree of Heaven which had put out runner roots 100 feet long, she remembers.
Biocontrol introductions, the use of bugs or diseases, have also been successful.
Invasive species control on an ecosystem level can only be achieved through innovative volunteer and internship programs, she said.
“They are the backbone of our work, and build future capacity to preserve native forest,” Cassel said.
KRCP also provides meaningful educational service projects for “voluntourism.”
“This will help to increase visitation to Hawaii by providing free housing for volunteers, and combine forest stewardship with sustainable travel,” she said.
While it’s often difficult for visitors and part-time residents to plug into volunteerism, KRCP’s ability to accept spontaneous offers of help and provide a framework for service projects is a valuable asset and somewhat unique in the state. It allows tourists to work beside locals and make a connection with the land, experience magnificent native forests they wouldn’t otherwise.
Anyone interested in the internship program should call (808)-335-0045 or email Kokeeresource@gmail.com.