By CAROLYN LUCAS-ZENK
Stephens Media Hawaii
Traveling to the top of Mauna Kea in 1825, Scottish botanist James Macrae described in awe “one plant of the Syginesia tribe, in growth much like a Yucca, with sharp pointed coloured leaves and green upright spike of three or four feet producing pendulous branches with brown flowers, truly superb, and almost worth the journey of coming here to see it on purpose.”
He was writing about the Mauna Kea silversword that grew in abundance and was the only plant he saw during the final mile of his journey.
This endemic plant, also called ahinahina, had a historical range that dominated the mountain’s subalpine and alpine ecosystems at the 8,500- to 12,500-foot elevations. Today, the Mauna Kea silversword is a federally endangered species. The population declined severely by the pressures of grazing ungulates and other vegetation, said Fritz Klasner, natural resources program manager for the Office of Mauna Kea Management.
Restoration and recovery efforts are under way through the Office of Mauna Kea Management, state Department of Land and Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. DLNR propagates silverswords in its greenhouse and strives to reintroduce thousands of seedlings annually. The Office of Mauna Kea Management and its volunteers have helped with the outplantings, including planting 200 silverswords in the state’s enclosure next to the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station at the 9,500-foot elevation, Klasner said.
The newly planted silverswords are encircled with neatly stacked rocks, which help collect the fog drip — a key source of moisture. The plants are also watered twice a week for about a month, then once a week for another five months or until winter, the wet season, hits. The Office of Mauna Kea Management coordinates the watering and helps monitor the site. Approximately two-thirds or three-fourths of the plants survive. Once a root system is established, the silverswords are expected to live 30 to 50 years on Mauna Kea, Klasner said.
The Office of Mauna Kea Management started a volunteer program in 2012 as a way to engage the public in helping take care of the mountain in a meaningful way. It also serves to educate people about the unique resources and the activities that occur there, Klasner said.
Volunteers get a rare look inside the observatory support facilities at Hale Pohaku, where astronomers and technicians who work at the summit go to acclimate or live while working. They also enjoy presentations from various speakers, including natural resource managers, cultural practitioners, entomologists, scientists and researchers who share information about Mauna Kea or their work.
The Office of Mauna Kea Management, which falls under the University of Hawaii at Hilo’s chancellor, is tasked with achieving “harmony, balance, and trust in the sustainable management and stewardship of the Mauna Kea Science Reserve through community involvement and programs that protect, preserve, and enhance the natural, cultural and recreational resources of Mauna Kea while providing a world-class center dedicated to education, research, and astronomy.” It manages the area starting at the 9,200-foot elevation and extending to the 13,792-foot summit. This encompasses the 11,288-acre Mauna Kea Science Reserve, the midlevel facilities at Hale Pohaku and the Summit Access Road, Klasner said.
The Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce and Board of Realtors helped launch the office’s volunteer program by rallying members to participate in invasive weed pulls around Hale Pohaku and along the road corridor.
Volunteers typically help remove invasive species, such as fireweed, fountain grass, common mullein, telegraph weed and poppies, by hand. Planting rare silverswords is a unique opportunity, one that’s made possible by DLNR, which makes the seedlings available, provides planting instructions and obtains the needed permits, Klasner said.
Removing invasive plants is important for several reasons. Invasive plants can harm native bird populations, including the palila, a critically endangered Hawaiian honeycreeper, through the displacement of native forest and shrub lands. They can also prevent forest recovery by smothering the native plant seedlings; change the fire regime; alter habitats; and serve as ideal homes for unwanted predators or insects. For example, the Argentine ant is a serious threat to native flora and fauna because of its appetite for seeds, nectar and arthropods such as moths and bees, which are pollinators of the silversword, Klasner said.
While the removal may not eradicate invasive plants, the efforts are making a difference — one that can be seen. Areas once completely taken over by invasive plants are now relatively sparse. The expansion has decreased or stopped. This continuing control is giving native species a better chance at becoming more established and, in some cases, in perpetuity, Klasner said.
Eventually, the Office of Mauna Kea Management plans to plant various native species, further helping restore areas and increase the native plant diversity.
The work days, consisting of no more than 50 volunteers at a time, take place at least once per month. So far, more than 1,500 volunteer hours have been donated this year, already surpassing last year’s total of 1,200 hours, Klasner said.
To get involved or for more information about the volunteer program, call Klasner at 933-0734 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Email Carolyn Lucas-Zenk at email@example.com.