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Stanford biologist working to restore native forests to Hawaii


There’s trouble in paradise. In Hawaii, where cattle have dotted the landscape for decades, ranching is becoming less profitable. Some landowners are cashing in on the vacation resort market by developing their land with high-rise hotels, cottages and "ranchettes."

But a group from Stanford University’s Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) is working to make restoration of native forests just as economically attractive. They will be presenting their research Dec. 13 at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco.

"Right now, nature is an all-you-can-eat buffet-there’s nothing stopping people from pigging out," said Gretchen Daily, director of the Tropical Research Program at CCB. "The focus of my research has been figuring out ways to reward people for good table manners."

Convincing environmentalists and landowners to work together can be difficult. Their goals often conflict, since conservationists often advocate leaving the land alone-preventing the harvest of resources.

Daily, an associate professor (research) of biological sciences at Stanford, is studying a possible solution to this dilemma in the Kona district of Hawaii-a win-win scenario in which replanting of native forests can not only restore a damaged ecosystem but also provide a renewable source of profit. The lessons learned here-about quantifying the benefits supplied by nature and creating incentives to protect them-are likely to be relevant in many other parts of the world, Daily said.

She is working with an interdisciplinary team of Stanford scholars, including Meg Caldwell and Buzz Thompson in the Law School; Pamela Matson, dean of the School of Earth Sciences; Roz Naylor in the Stanford Institute for International Studies; and Paul Ehrlich and Peter Vitousek in the Department of Biological Sciences.

Restoring a key species

The focus of Daily’s efforts in Hawaii is the restoration of koa, a species of acacia tree native to the islands. A cornerstone of the forest ecosystem, the tree also is highly valued for its deep golden-red, shimmering hardwood. But koa has become increasingly rare, especially where ranchland covers much of the landscape.

"One option for landowners is to develop Hawaii into vacation real estate and forget about conservation," Daily said. "Another option is to try and offer landowners an income from not just koa wood but many other benefits that would come from restoring koa forests."

For example, koa can help recharge freshwater aquifers, many of which are being overdrawn in Hawaii, Daily said. Whereas mist and clouds pass over grassy ranchland without contributing much to groundwater, koa trees provide a lush, broad-leafed canopy that can draw moisture out of the air more efficiently.

Koa forests also can help suppress the spread of fires and control flooding locally, she said. They also can store carbon-helping to stabilize the climate globally. These benefits are what Daily and others refer to as "ecosystem services," which have tremendous economic value.

Win-win scenario

Koa forests also would be ideally suited to host ecotourism, a niche market that attracts more adventurous types, Daily said. For these tourists, catching a glimpse of the rare and endangered species that depend on koa forests can be more than worth the price of admission.

"Many Hawaiian plants and animals have already gone extinct," Daily said. "Those that remain are dependent on native forest, of which koa is a key species. If we can bring back koa, we can help secure the future of those native species that still survive."

One such species is the ’Akiapola’au, a highly endangered species of honeycreeper bird found only on the Big Island of Hawaii. Liba Pejchar, a postdoctoral researcher working with Daily, made a surprising discovery while completing her doctoral research.

"She found that young koa plantations, the kind someone growing for profit would have, are really good habitat for the ’Akiapola’au," Daily said. "Usually you hear that you need old growth to be biologically valuable, as in the case of the spotted owl."

Multiple approaches

Daily plans to tackle the issue from ecological, financial and institutional angles. Pejchar is leading the ecological efforts and plans to travel to Hawaii in January. While there, she will survey native plant and animal diversity on several sites with various degrees of tree cover, including pasture, restored forest and mature forest.

Doctoral student Joshua Goldstein is conducting the financial research. He is working with landowners to develop a financial model that depicts what land uses will yield the best balance of profit and ecological benefit. He plans to assess factors as varied as the market price of koa wood, the cost of restoring forest on grazing land and the cultural preferences of ranchers. By integrating these factors into a "decision analysis" model, Goldstein hopes to determine what tradeoffs will make koa forest restoration an attractive option.

Selling conservation

Daily knows that for landowners to buy into conservation, they have to view it as good for business. By applying sound economic principles to projects like koa restoration, she hopes to change the way we view our natural assets.

She already has had some success in Costa Rica, where a separate study determined that rainforests may be valuable to coffee farmers. In that study, published in the Aug. 24 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Daily and her collaborators found that not only were coffee plants located near an intact rainforest more productive but the beans were also of higher quality. They traced this finding to the pollination services offered by rainforests, where native bees nest.

"We’ve been pretty narrow minded in how we extract benefits from ecosystems," she said. "If we look more broadly at how land can be used, there’s the potential to have all sorts of revenue streams. We’re trying to find ways to make conservation economically attractive and commonplace."

Mark Shwartz | EurekAlert!
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