HONOLULU, Hawaii – Rapid Ohia Death, or ROD, took center stage at the IUCN World Conservation Congress opening ceremony o Thursday in Honolulu.
When Hawaii’s U.S. Senator Brian Schatz delivered his keynote address, he used the opportunity to tell a story about the frightening fungal disease killing entire forests of native ʻōhiʻa trees on the Big Island.
In the Hawaiian rainforest, the center of life is the Ohia tree. it’s the spiritual center, it’s visually the most noticeable, and it’s the most important in terms of ecology and forest health.
Two years ago people reported that ʻōhiʻa trees were abruptly dying, and forest researchers took notice. In 2013, they observed just under 2,300 affected acres with massive ʻōhiʻa mortality rates and no explanation. Just a name for what they were seeing: Rapid Ohia Death.
The next year was quadruple that amount and now that figure is roughly 38,000 infected acres; five percent of the rainforest on Hawaii Island.
Resource managers were honestly terrified. Everything they work for in terms of invasive species management, habitat restoration, all of it… in danger, because of Rapid Ohia Death. And so every state, federal, nonprofit and research agency on Hawaii Island formed a team, cobbled-together funding, and collaborated to attack the problem.
They now have some money. Not enough (if there are any generous individuals in the room, yet). They do have some money, a few scientific breakthroughs, a resource management plan, and for the first time: real hope of saving Hawaii’s rainforest.
I don’t know how this story ends.
That’s because we are still battling to save the ʻōhiʻa tree on Hawaii Island. And for the Forest Service, for the Park Service, for local conservationists … for people who care about this on the Big Island. This is the fight of their professional lives.
I think they will win, but no one can be sure.
But here’s what I do know. I know that each one of you has your own fight, in your home country, in your own organizations, and you are all trying to save your portion of the only planet that we’ve got.
On August 29, Sen. Schatz and the U.S. Department of the Interior announced $497,000 in additional funds to fight ROD, which will immediately activate an Early Detection Rapid Response Team. The funding 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,” officials said.