Friday, July 09, 2010

Ghost Forest - One of the world's most endangered ecosystems just got smaller

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Earlier this month, there was a "brush fire" around the 27-mile marker on the upper highway between Kona and Waimea. It was a fairly small fire, no homes were in danger, and the story disappeared. This afternoon I went walking below the scenic lookout, and I made my way down and over to the fire area. A few places were still smoldering in the blackened 500 acres, and a few scorched, doomed trees still were standing, but what caught my attention were the white outlines of the trees reduced to ash.

Hawaiian dryland forests are one of the most endangered ecosystems on the planet. And we just lost another chunk. Not 500 acres, though. Most of the area burned by the fire was devoid of trees due to a previous fire in 1993 or so, but there were significant stands of native lama and ohia, now ghostly outlines.

The native trees adapted (or evolved) to withstand brushfires of native pili grass, but fountain grass has displaced the native grasses and it burns at a higher temperature, so when it burns, a forest remnant is lost forever, unless expensive and labor-intensive reforestation happens in the future. Fountain grass seeds are fire activated, so the fire helps the invader. And the current terrible drought looks to continue, so expect at least one more fire this year. And the endangered ecosystem will continue to shrink, another remnant of the dryland forest will be lost, leaving only a ghost forest behind. And even that will be gone with the first good rain.

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