Hawaii governor calls invasive weed a "natural disaster waiting to happen"; calls for urgent action to stop invasion

Friday, April 12, 1996 (Release No. 96-034)

On the island of Tahiti the battle has already been lost. But here in Hawaii, the battle to halt the spread of Miconia calvescens, one of the most invasive and damaging alien weeds ever found in the Pacific islands, will intensify this weekend, April 13-14, when the State launches "Operation Miconia," an emergency statewide weed eradication effort.

"Operation Miconia represents the largest mobilization effort in the history of the State to locate and eradicate an invasive alien weed," said Governor Benjamin J. Cayetano. "Miconia is the most threatening alien weed to ever establish itself in Hawaii. If left unchecked, this plant has the potential to devastate our islands' forest watersheds, native species, and windward farmlands. Its presence is a natural disaster waiting to happen."

In Tahiti, Miconia is known as the "green cancer" because it spread from three small garden plantings in 1937 to the point where it now covers 70 percent of the island's forests. The battle to stop Miconia on Tahiti has been lost, and attention is now focused on Raiatea and other islands where the weed is just becoming established.

In Hawaii, Miconia has already established itself at worrisome levels. It has been found at 36 locations on four islands and spread across more than 10,000 acres. The consequences of failing to act now are dire, according to the Governor. "If we stand by and do nothing, the future costs are incalculable," he said. "This is our one chance to stop this plant. We have no choice but to act now and act aggressively."

Even more troubling than the potential future cost, however, is the impact on the state's rain forests, which supply Hawaii with almost all of its fresh water and provide critical habitat for thousands of plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth. "Miconia threatens our environment and our economy," said Michael D. Wilson, chair of the State Department of Land and Natural Resources, the lead agency in Operation Miconia. "The erosion caused by this weed could also damage our beaches and swimming areas, our number one visitor attraction."

An attractive, innocuous looking plant, Miconia has large, dark-green velvety leaves with a purple underside that is its most recognizable feature. A mature Miconia tree can grow to 50 feet in height and can produce 22 million seeds a year -- seeds that are easily dispersed by birds, and by humans who can inadvertently pick up seeds on their muddy boots or equipment and carry them to new areas.

Miconia forms dense thickets that block the sunlight so that few other plants beneath it can survive. As Miconia grows, it destroys natural habitat, depriving native plants of sunlight and nutrients from the soil, and depriving native birds of the plants they need to survive. As Miconia's thick shade kills ground cover, its shallow roots cannot hold the soil exposed to erosion. The runoff washes into the ocean, choking coral reefs.

"Miconia can spread to all moist habitats, including farms, pastures, roadsides, and forests," said Wilson. "If not stopped in Hawaii now, massive control projects in the future will place a heavy, long-term financial burden on the State."

Operation Miconia is part of a larger battle being waged by the State of Hawaii against all kinds of alien pests. Hawaii's evolutionary isolation from the continents and its modern role as the commercial hub of the Pacific make these islands particularly vulnerable to destruction by non-native insects and plants, snakes, and tropical diseases, said DLNR's Wilson.

A consortium of State, Federal, and County agencies, businesses, non-profit organizations, and various other groups have committed a combined total of over $500,000 to Operation Miconia. The campaign is being conducted on the islands of Oahu, Maui, Kauai, Lanai, Molokai, and the Big Island of Hawaii.

On April 13 and 14, Miconia eradication projects will take place on Maui and the Big Island, where infestations of Miconia are the most serious. In addition, neighborhood canvassing will take place on all islands over a three-week period. Residents are being asked to call an established hotline number on their island if they think they have spotted a Miconia population.

"The good news is that, unlike Tahiti, we have discovered the Miconia problem in time and are acting to remove this weed before it's too late," said Governor Cayetano. "Our goal is to reach every household in the State to enlist everyone's help in locating this plant and preventing its spread. The situation is serious. But we believe we are going to stop the invasion. We have to."

Partner agencies participating in Operation Miconia include the Department of Land and Natural Resources, Department of Agriculture, Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii, National Park Service, National Biological Service, Natural Resource Conservation Service, Hawaii Nursery Growers Association, Maui Land and Pineapple Co., Alexander & Baldwin, County governments and others.

For further information call Aulani Wilhelm, Department of Land and Natural Resources, phone (808) 587-0330; fax (808) 587-0390.

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