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Economic Currents

Keep up to date with the latest UHERO news.

Forest protection provides important cost savings to water utility on Maui

Posted October 8, 2019 | Categories: Hawaii's Environment, Blog

Researchers from the University of Hawaiʻi Economic Research Organization and Water Resources Research Center partnered with the Nature Conservancy of Hawaiʻi to evaluate how native forest conservation contributes to local water supplies in a water stressed area in East Maui. They found that by preventing the degradation of native forest, conservation efforts could save the local water utility up to 137.6 million dollars over 100 years depending on a range of assumptions. This finding demonstrates that it makes practical sense for water utilities to join collective action efforts to finance watershed conservation, which in turn provides a suite of benefits in addition to water.

The team looked at potential futures of native forest under conservation versus no conservation.

Economic benefits of protecting groundwater recharge through conservation activities in Waikamoi preserve assuming a 10% spread rate of non-native species without conservation under different assumptions of future water scarcity and discount rates. The dark blue shows the part that that the water utility could finance based on savings, whereas the hatched shows the portion that could be co-financed by other entities who value the preserve. PV= present value.

Tropical forest conservation around the world provides many benefits, including supporting a diversity of flora and fauna as well a suite of ‘ecosystem services’ such as clean water and carbon sequestration. Biocultural values and livelihoods associated with tropical forests are also increasingly put forth as restoration objectives and have long motivated conservation efforts around the world. Yet, funding for tropical forest conservation remains limited and insufficient to meet the challenge of rapid biodiversity loss.

A promising partner for tropical forest conservation are emerging ‘natural infrastructure’ or investment in watershed services programs such as water funds. These programs convene water users (such as water utilities, beverage companies, non-profits, governments, and community groups) together to help finance upstream watershed management activities that help to ensure clean and ample water supplies for downstream cities and communities. Tropical forest conservation and restoration is often one strategy of these programs.

Yet, a major challenge is a lack of data on the potential water benefits and cost savings associated with watershed conservation efforts such as fencing and weed control that prevent the establishment of non-native species. In response to this gap, the UH team compared the groundwater recharge benefits of the Nature Conservancy’s Waikamoi Preserve with and without conservation actions over 100 years. They also expressed this difference in dollars based on cost savings to the water utility achieved through reducing reliance on more expensive alternatives.

UHERO graduate student Sarah Medoff hikes in the Waikamoi preserve.

The Nature Conservancy’s ~ 2,700 hectare Waikamoi preserve is the State of Hawaiʻi’s largest private nature reserve. The preserve is a truly exceptional places that provides a suite of interconnected benefits to the people of Hawaiʻi and the world, from conserving threatened and endangered bird and plant species to the deep interconnected cultural values associated with these ecosystems. This study found, that in addition to these benefits, conservation in Waikamoi also makes an important contribution to local water supplies. Through partnering with other groups and agencies to co-finance watershed conservation, water utilities can cost-effectively meet their water supply needs while also protecting a suite of other benefits associated with the preserve and other similar areas.

Modeled spread of non-native canopy species in Waikamoi without conservation (assuming a 10% spread).

UHERO team at Waikamoi with The Nature Conservancy.

- Leah Bremer

This study was published in Science of the Total Environment with authors Leah Bremer, Sarah Medoff, Chris Wada, Kimberly Burnett, and Kim Falinksi. The work was supported by The Nature Conservancy of Hawaiʻi and the National Science Foundation EPSCoR ʻIke Wai project.


Biocultural Restoration Workday Draws Community Together to Plant an Agroforest

Mahealani Botelho of Kākoʻo ʻŌiwi shares the vision for biocultural restoration of agroforestry in Puʻulani in an opening ceremony (photo by Randy Fish).

“I ola ʽoe, i ola mākou nei.” A community member recites the pule (blessing), “my life is dependent on yours, your life is dependent on mine”, to a native aʽaʽliʽi shrub as she gently tucks them into the ground. The side of the ridge is a sea of colorful flags marking holes where nearly 200 energetic volunteers ages one through 85 plant a variety of native and other culturally valued trees and shrubs. Here the goal of restoration is not just the final outcome, but the process of bringing community together and restoring cultural connection to place.

Julianna Rapu and her keiki plant an ʻāweoweo (photo by Leah Bremer).

Puʽulani stretches like a finger into the Heʽeia wetland, a ridge rising above the alluvial plane. Restoring the traditional name, heavenly or spiritual ridge, and planting culturally important species are the first steps in the process of reconnecting people with this puʽu. Staff at the local nonprofit Kākoʽo ʽŌiwi (kakoooiwi.org) are working to restore ecological and cultural vitality to over 400 acres here.

Community workday at Puʻulani, Kāko’o ʻŌiwi on February 12, 2019 (photo by Sarah Weibe).

Many native, culturally important plants are only found in remnant forests high up in the mountains. There, it can take significant time and energy to reach them, meaning many people, especially keiki and kupuna, do not have the opportunity to interact with the plants. The plants at Puʽulani are only a short walk or drive from Kākoʽo ʽŌiwi’s entrance past an extensive network of loʽi. As one volunteer reflected, “it is uplifting to see so many people come together from diverse walks of life.”

Kākoʻo ‘Ōiwi loʻi and road to Puʻulani (photo by Sarah Wiebe).

“I’ve done a lot of restoration, but I have never seen ohiʽa next to ʽawa and ʻāweoweo. Why did you put them together?” a volunteer asked. The goal of many restoration projects is to re-establish native forest as it was pre-European contact. Instead, at Puʽulani we are bringing together plants that help us achieve both biological and cultural (biocultural) restoration goals such as strengthening community connectedness to place, producing lei making materials, medicine, and food, sequestering carbon, and reducing erosion in a land use system called agroforestry.

Agroforestry is the intentional combination of trees with crops and/or livestock. At first glance, a multi-story agroforest may look similar to a native forest, but the mix of plants is often different from what might grow together without human intervention and may include native and introduced species.

Agroforests were widespread in Hawaiʽi prior to European contact, yet relatively few remain today. At Puʽulani, we are interested in understanding how we can adapt traditional agroforest models to a contemporary context, designing systems that are resilient into the future.

To do this, we set up a controlled experiment testing two different restoration approaches, or species mixes. The hillside is divided into ten plots in which five plots have one set of species and the other five have a different group of species. In the plots we are tracking plant growth and survival as well as indicators of multiple ecosystem services such as soil carbon, erosion, and surveys of visitors who participate in the project. The project is a collaborative effort led by Kākoʽo ʽŌiwi’s staff and UH researchers from Botany, UHERO’s Project Environment, the Water Resources Research Center, and NREM.

By documenting benefits and costs of our two approaches over time, we hope to provide land managers, farm owners, and others with information that can use to make decisions about adopting agroforestry on their land.

While we are still finishing the initial agroforestry planting at Puʽulani, the keiki plants are already creating space for community to learn and feel connected. As one person expressed about their experience, “I understood the energy exchange of giving back to the land, I felt a part of the community taking care of the land that takes care of us.”

Want to get involved? Join us at Kākoʽo ʽŌiwi every second Saturday of the month to care for the agroforest and loʽi.

- Zoe Hastings, Mahealani Botelho, and Leah Bremer
Zoe Hastings is a PhD student and NSF Graduate Research Fellow interested in collaborative biocultural restoration of agroecological systems. She works closely with Mahealani Botelho and others at Kākoʻo ‘Ōiwi and the UH research team to collaboratively design the restoration and research process at Puʻulani. Leah Bremer is an Assistant Specialist with UHERO’s Project Environment and the Water Resources Research Center and a project PI alongside Tamara Ticktin and Clay Trauernicht. Many others have contributed to this effort including Kanekoa Kukea-Shultz, Nick Reppun, and all the Kākoʻo ʻŌiwi staff, as well as Angel Melone, a graduate student helping with many dimensions of the project. We thank our funders, including the United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Conservation Innovation Grants program (# NR1892510002G003), the College of Social Sciences Research Support Award, and the Heʻeia National Estuarine Research Reserve.


Hawaii Greenhouse Gas Emissions Report for 2015

UHERO's Makena Coffman, Paul Bernstein, and Maja Schjervheim have contributed to the latest report released by the Hawaii Department of Health, Clean Air Branch on Hawaii's Green House Gas emissions.

This report was prepared to assess the State's progress toward its goal of reducing its emissions levels to at or below 1990 levels by 2020. The final report is available here: https://health.hawaii.gov/cab/files/2019/02/2015-Inventory_Final-Report_January-2019-004-1.pdf

UHERO at Governor Ige's Biosecurity and Invasive Species Initiative workshop

UHERO’s Kimberly Burnett was invited by Governor David Ige to participate in a panel discussion focused on the economic impacts of invasive species at the Western Governors’ Association Biosecurity and Invasive Species Initiative workshop in Waimea, Hawaii on December 9-10, 2018. 

The goal is to examine emerging issues in biosecurity and invasive species management and develop a set of policy recommendations, best practices, and technical tools to address those issues.

Hybrid Forest Restoration Benefits Communities and Increases Resilience

Photo by Ben Nyberg

Researchers from UHERO, the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa, and National Tropical Botanical Garden quantify social, ecological, and economic costs and benefits of alternative forest restoration strategies


An interdisciplinary research team from the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa (UHM) and the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) demonstrated how collaboratively-developed forest restoration in Limahuli Garden & Preserve (Limahuli) can increase community benefits and improve resilience at lower cost than standard forest restoration programs. Because conservation managers are increasingly faced with making restoration decisions constrained by multiple goals and limited budgets, the research team collaborated with conservation professionals at Limahuli to co-design research that will directly inform adaptive management.

Specifically, authors of a newly published study in the journal Conservation Letters asked how manager-defined ecological, hydrologic and cultural metrics of success and long-term management costs vary across different restoration strategies. The researchers focused on the ahupua`a of Hā`ena on Kaua`i Island, and evaluated unrestored forest and forests restored to different states—ranging from a pre-human arrival state, to a “hybrid” state that includes mixes of native and non-native species of cultural importance. Their study site was Limahuli Valley, a 400-hectare nature preserve managed by NTBG in the most biodiverse ecoregion of the Hawaiian archipelago, which is home to dozens of endangered plants and birds found nowhere else on earth. They found that restoring forest to a hybrid state provided many of the same services that a restored ‘pre-human’ state can provide, but at a much lower cost. They also found it increased two important services: cultural value and resilience to disturbance such as hurricanes.

The paper “Restoring to the Future: Environmental, Cultural, and Management Tradeoffs in Historical versus Hybrid Restoration of a Highly Modified Ecosystem” has a diverse team of authors from the natural and social sciences as well as natural resource managers: Kimberly M. Burnett, Tamara Ticktin, Leah L. Bremer, Shimona Quazi, Cheryl Geslani, Christopher A. Wada, Natalie Kurashima, Lisa Mandle, Pua`ala Pascua, Taina Depraetere, Dustin Wolkis, Merlin Edmonds, Thomas Giambelluca, Kim A. Falinski, and Kawika B. Winter.

“Restoring forests to a pre-human state on a landscape scale has been idealized, but—given the amount of functional diversity that has gone extinct in Hawai`i—such an approach is almost impossible, ecologically speaking. Beyond that, our research has shown that goal is economically impractical, and it isn’t the best way to engage community in restoration efforts,” said Dr. Kawika Winter, a multidisciplinary ecologist and Research Associate at NTBG who is the anchor author of the new study. “These results can be used by conservation practitioners to guide management actions, and to bring the community back into the forest while improving multiple ecological and social benefits; and do all this at lower costs than programs focused solely on historical restoration goals.”

The methods also have applications far beyond Hawai`i, particularly as conservation managers working in places with a history of cultural engagement with forests, and who are increasingly faced with decisions on how to fund and approach restoration efforts. This new research provides a framework to help managers identify restoration strategies addressing multiple goals in regions where restoration is challenging – areas where invasive species or other issues limit natural regeneration of native species, and/or where local populations depends on natural resources. Lower costs also offer the possibility of scaling-up, a critical consideration since island conservation is underfunded compared to continents.

Dr. Kimberly Burnett, Specialist with the University of Hawai`i Economic Research Organization and lead author of the study, said: “While conservation managers cannot make realistic decisions without considering costs, these type of tradeoff analyses are rare in restoration research. Our study provides a framework to consider these costs and benefits, while providing specific management direction for Limahuli and generalizable lessons for restoration strategies around the world.”

Dr. Tamara Ticktin, co-author on the study, Professor of Botany at UHM, and Principal Investigator on the National Science Foundation grant that funded the research, added: “Like any restoration strategy, hybrid forest restoration also has its limitations. Our study concluded that hybrid forests can be an excellent strategy within a landscape mosaic that also includes more expensive restoration strategies needed to preserve the most endangered species. The value of our multidisciplinary approach is that it provides a powerful tool for resource managers to take into consideration the different metrics that are important to them, and to make more informed decisions about what that landscape mosaic of restored forest could look like.”

This study was supported through funding from a National Science Foundation grant to the University of Hawai`i.

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