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Restoring Molokai Wetlands

By Jack Kiyonaga, Reporter 

An alliance of local, state and federal organizations have teamed up to form the Molokai Wetlands Partnership (MWP). Established in 2020, the MWP recently completed a pilot program to study 11 Molokai wetland sites. 

Pulama Lima, a Molokai resident and partner with MWP, explained that this study was meant to start a community conversation around wetlands and restoration. 

In conjunction with the MWP slogan of “re-imagining Molokai wetlands,” Lima explained that “we haven’t defined restoration. We feel that’s something for the community to decide how those spaces should be restored and to what degree.” 

The MWP pilot study examined 11 sites on Molokai’s southern shore, gathering information on vegetation, soil, hydrology, native plants and birds, sea level rise and more. 

Rapid assessment results from this study revealed that all the coastal wetlands sites had at least some groundwater flow and were “likely resilient to sea level rise until 2050.” However, the rapid assessment also found “broad scale degradation from invasive plants” and concluded that “sedimentation from uplands is a big problem.” 

One of the partners in the MWP is Pacific Birds. Helen Raine, the Hawaii conservation coordinator for Pacific Birds, explained how wetland restoration has a multi-layered effect. 

“Restoring lo’i and spaces where people grow food is also an amazing way to protect these endangered species,” said Raine. 

The US Geological Survey, another partner with MWP, helped create a model for what restoration could look like. 

Sally House with the USGS unveiled a new suitability tool which MWP hopes to open up soon for public use. This website allows users to weight certain inputs such as vegetation, native birds  sea level rise, or community support and then rank areas based on these factors. 

From this rapid assessment, each site was ranked based on its readiness for restoration. These rankings listed Kaupapalo’i o Ka’amola, Kakahai’a, Ohi’apilo Pond, Punalau Pond and Kamahu’ehu’e Pond as the five most readily suitable sites for restoration. 

Along with this suitability analysis tool, future plans for MPW include presenting their findings at the Hawaii Conservation Conference along with a journal article. 

Molokai residents at an April 20 MWP meeting expressed concern over the terms used, specifically the definitions of restoration and community. 

While MWP speakers described their process as “community driven,” residents in attendance asked pointblank “Can you define community?” 

Lima’s response was that community constituted “the people who attended the community meeting [last April]…We had educators, different representatives from different organizations, and different ‘ohana from around those areas.” 

Other concerns fielded from residents during the meeting included how the data on sites was gathered, where the data was going and how sites had been chosen. The greatest concern was that designation of certain areas as wetlands would reduce accessibility for the Molokai community. 

“For our community here in Molokai, a lot of times this wetlands designation has prevented access to places and impeded our ability to practice our cultural traditional subsistence practices,” said Lima.  

“I think wetlands is a trigger word in our community,” she continued. “There is a lot of stigma attached to wetlands, historical trauma even. But I think we need to change that narrative and realize that our wetland ecosystems are essential to the quality of our water systems and our groundwater aquifer.” 

The most productive times for Molokai’s wetlands occurred when people interacted with these spaces as stewards, according to Lima. 

“Preventing people from accessing these spaces isn’t a conservation method that we support,” said Lima. 

Molokai residents can learn more about the Molokai Wetland Partnership at pacificbirds.org.


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