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    August 2016
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Interior Department and Senator Brian Schatz Announce Additional Federal Support to Combat Rapid Ohia Death

In response to a request from Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI), the U.S. Department of the Interior announced today $497,000 in additional federal funding to combat a tree-killing fungus that causes Rapid ‘Ohia Death (ROD), a disease that threatens the State’s tropical forests and delicate ecosystems which could jeopardize local water supplies and Hawai‘i’s economic vitality. The funding comes on the eve of the World Conservation Congress that is convening for the first time in the United States this week in Honolulu.

Rapid Ohia Death

Today’s funding announcement immediately activates an Early Detection Rapid Response Team (EDRR Team) and leverages another $673,000 of in-kind Federal contributions to suppress or contain a disease that potentially could have enormous biological, economic, social and cultural repercussions for the Aloha State. The EDRR Team comprised of Federal and state agencies and a consortium of scientists will immediately begin to conduct field surveys for the disease, support critical research to pioneer adaptive treatment protocols and complete assessments of those treatments.

“Rapid ‘Ohia Death is a biosecurity issue that warrants urgent action. It threatens to leave Hawai‘i’s forests, ecosystems, watersheds and commerce in a vulnerable state. Agencies must work together to generate the science needed to support decisive decisions,” said U.S. Department of the Interior Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Kristen J. Sarri. “Our funding will enable this to happen. An Early Detection and Rapid Response Team will identify and rapidly respond to diseased trees while pioneering effective treatment options that will preserve the cultural significance of the ‘ohia for Native Hawaiians and enable the species to continue to provide countless ecological benefits to the State for generations to come. What we learn from this interagency approach will be applicable to addressing other invasive species of priority concern, in Hawai’i and across the United States.”

“This is an ecological emergency, and it requires everyone working together to save Hawai‘i Island’s native forests. I’m pleased to see our federal partners step up to help. The additional funding will make a big difference, and it will give us the tools to understand the disease, develop better management responses, and protect our ‘ohia,” said U.S. Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI).

At the invitation of Senator Schatz, Sarri is attending a summit today with scientific experts, leaders from the conservation community and government leaders to better understand the current status of ROD management and science, discuss developments, and identify the most pressing opportunities to make progress.

The fungal disease is attacking and killing the ‘ohia lehua, a tree species sacred to Native Hawaiians that covers nearly one million acres in the Hawaiian archipelago. It is a keystone species for 60% of Hawai‘i’s forests and is integral to keeping the State’s delicate ecosystem in balance. The fungus causing ROD, first identified in 2014, already claimed 38,000 acres of trees on Hawai‘i Island where nearly two-thirds of the tree species lives. Scientists and resource managers worry that ROD will continue to ravage Hawai‘i Island’s forests and spread to other islands. This could potentially decimate habitat for many rare, threatened and endangered species, as well as jeopardize water resources and native cultural practices unless immediate interventions are implemented, including strengthening early detection and rapid response actions.

The disease was first confirmed by researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and the University of Hawai‘i (UH). The State of Hawai‘i responded quickly by implementing an emergency ban on the movement of ‘ohia plant parts and soil interisland and intrastate, and requesting further assistance. Immediately, numerous agencies and organizations at the local, state and federal levels, including USFS, ARS, UH and Interior’s U.S. Geological Survey, the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service formed a working group to improve detection, understand the spread and develop mitigation measures for ROD.

This multi-organizational effort facilitated sharing information, coordinated research and resource management and spurred public education and outreach efforts. As a result of these efforts, scientists were able to identify a fungus as the cause of the ‘ohia tree’s mortality, as well as develop methods to detect the fungal agent, and are tracking the spread of the disease. Hawai‘i mapped the location of diseased trees and instituted biosecurity measures to contain the spread of ROD, as well as kicked off a major public education effort to better inform landowners, resource managers and the general public about the disease.

The Federal government is committed to improving its ability to prevent invasive species from impacting national assets. The President’s Priority Agenda on enhancing climate resilience called for a national framework for the early detection of and response to invasive species. In response, an interdepartmental report, Safeguarding America’s Lands and Waters from Invasive Species: A National Framework for Early Detection and Rapid Response was released last February. The recommendations in that report have since been taken up as priority actions in the recently adopted 2016-2018 National Invasive Species Council (NISC) Management Plan. Implementation of the Management Plan is already in progress. Assessments are being conducted of the Federal authorities, programmatic structures and technical capacities needed to support a national program for the early detection of and rapid response to invasive species. NISC anticipates releasing the findings in early 2017.

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