Michael Constantinides, assistant director for technology with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, says it’s better to plant the invasive grasses to control the soil than do nothing. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
With winter rains fast-approaching, federal officials are moving forward with a plan to air-drop seeds of invasive grasses across the scorched landscape in Upcountry Maui and Lahaina to control the loose soil before it washes into streams and the ocean.
Michael Constantinides, assistant director for technology with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, said that while planting a native species like pili or kawelu may be preferred, none are available in quantities that could be deployed at a landscape or watershed scale.
“The honest, basic truth is we have few options,” he said Wednesday during a House Finance Committee field trip to a Chevalier-owned property in Kula overlooking some of the 19 homes that were destroyed Upcountry in the Aug. 8 wildfires.
“We need you to understand that it’s complicated and we’re trying to do our best and we will come back recommending certain species that are not native to the state of Hawaii to revegetate some of these landscapes because in the short term we have to stabilize these soils,” Constantinides said.
“That’s a worse risk or potential tragedy than doing nothing or trying to do something with a set of playing cards that doesn’t have a good chance of success in the short term and mid term,” he said.
Rep. Kyle Yamashita, who chairs the Finance Committee and has represented parts of Upcountry since 2004, said he brought his colleagues on the site visit because management of soil and water conservation districts throughout the state has never been a high priority.
“More of the members need to understand that because over the years it’s been really underfunded,” he said.
Last year, Yamashita helped bring the state budget for such work to $700,000. USDA officials said that state funding is then leveraged to bring in around $10 million to $12 million in federal money.
Constantinides said he’s had a few crews out on the landscape the last four or five weeks assessing the situation. They will produce a damage assessment report that will outline the service’s suggested game plan.
From there, he said the plan will be sent up the USDA chain for approval, including federal funding. NRCS officials said that process could take a month or two, but that the seeds would be dropped within 200 days or so thereafter by helicopter, drone or fixed-wing aircraft.
The Aug. 8 fires on Maui killed at least 99 people, destroyed some 2,200 structures and burned more than 2,000 acres in Lahaina. The fires burned over 200 acres in Kula, 1,000 acres in Olinda and 3,000 acres in Pulehu.
Constantinides attributed the tragedy to four factors: drought, invasives, land management and extreme weather.
Invasive grasses on unmanaged lands became a significant fuel load that then became catastrophic after catching fire and being fanned by heavy winds. But he said native pili grasses would have burned just like the buffalo grass, and that drought has been something the islands have dealt with for decades.