Notes from the Newsroom: Hawaii offers lessons in relaxed common sense

Scott Swanson

When we think of Hawaii, for most of us what comes to mind are sandy beaches, surfboards, luaus, flowers, pineapple, coconuts, etc.

Forests may not immediately come to mind.

Recently, my wife and I spent a week in the Garden State with some friends. We stayed on Kauai, which, we were reminded repeatedly, is the least developed of the major islands in the chain. It was our first time there, and it indeed lacked some of the slick tourist feel you get elsewhere.

Hawaii is an interesting and complex place. There’s definitely a relaxed vibe that seems to be deeper than just service training of tourist industry employees and the fact that visitors are in generally good moods.

The “aloha spirit” goes beyond tourism literature. It is actually defined in state law as “the coordination of mind and heart within each person.”

More on that shortly.

The relaxed pace was evident, at least to me, in numerous ways, not just the pedestrian speed limits (I don’t think we ever topped 50 mph in our drives around the island, and most of our operating speeds were about half that – when we weren’t waiting for oncoming traffic at one of the one-lane bridges.)

A most revealing characteristic was the chickens – everywhere, including the airport.

Kauai is overrun with seemingly omnipresent feral feathered fowl. Apparently, a large number of domesticated chickens (and cockfighter roosters) flew the coop during Hurricane Iniki in 1992 and, since they have no real natural enemies on Kauai (to which mongooses have never been introduced, as they have been elsewhere in the islands), they’ve … proliferated.

Being a high-energy problem-solving Mainlander, I found myself pondering solutions. Clearly, I wasn’t alone in noticing that there were a lot of these birds – everywhere. (One local told me privately that he reduces the population in his back yard with a pellet rifle.)

Hmmm. Why not import a bunch of chicken hawks? Let ‘em do their thing for a while, then trap and relocate them when their services are no longer needed. Unlike mongooses in thick jungle conditions, hawks’ numbers could be brttered monitored and controlled.

I realized, though, that since this situation has continued for 25 years, the local folks apparently aren’t super motivated to deal with it.

That’s just one example and obviously, in the space I have here, there’s no way I can analyze a complex society like Kauai’s, let alone the state’s. But I mention all that to sort of set the stage for what I really want to talk about: Hawaiians’ appreciation and stewardship for what they have.

Hawaii is unique, a string of verdant tropical islands cut off from the rest of the world by deep seas. Consequently, they’re very careful about what they allow in and how they manage their natural resources.

When I visit Hawaii, I’m reminded frequently that the inhabitants there before the arrival of foreigners were industrious and creative in their use of the resources available to them.

What I find amazing about Hawaii, and particularly about Kauai, is how on a relatively small island (geographically a fourth the size of Linn County), there is such a diversity of climate and plant growth. The east side of Kauai gets regular showers of heavy rain (the most famous spot of which is probably Hanalei – remember “Puff the Magic Dragon?” – while the west (location of the town of Waimea, of Beach Boys fame) is dry, almost desert-like.

It’s incredible what diversity is packed into 552 square miles. While the north and east areas of the island are basically jungle – palm trees, vines and all manner of shrubbery, the south and west are more open forest – certainly not the kinds of timber we see around here, but tropical hardwoods and conifers.

In the summer of 2012, three fires burned approximately 3,000 acres of forest reserves in the southern end of the island. Comparatively speaking, that was a lot of territory.

While driving up Waimea Canyon Road to view the spectacular miniature version of the Grand Canyon, I noticed signs indicating the presence of log trucks. Then I saw a sign outlining plans for the burned region.

That sign listed plans that included sustainable harvesting of burnt forest areas (with the exception of the summer-long hoary bat pupping season), replanting of the burned areas, the improvement of public access to the region and – here’s a good one – “jobs for plant nurseries, seed collection, log and equipment trucking, and tree planting” that would be created “using local companies whenever possible.”

Hmmm. Seems like there’s a little aloha spirit mixed in there: consideration for the needs of others (heart) as well as mind (practical solutions).

I haven’t lived in Hawaii, so it’s difficult to quickly get a true sense of who the political players are there and what kinds of undercurrents steer public policy. There are definitely environmental interests, but it was kind of refreshing to see common-sense, environmentally sensitive, solutions to problems.

“The hills are covered with dead, burned trees. Water is going to run down and damage those hills and the communities below. So lets salvage that timber (since we don’t have a plethora of it on the island anyway) and get them replanted.”

I might add that, as environmentalists have complained about past logging practices in our state, there also has been plenty of destruction of ancient forests in Hawaii, mostly by clearing of land for sugar cane and pineapple cultivation. I watched a video program on the plane about how they are replanting some of those.

We’re not Hawaii. We’re Oregon, but we have some similar issues. The Hawaiians’ action plans seemed refreshingly sensible.

In the years I’ve lived in Oregon, off and on since the late 1960s, divergent political forces have created a literal firestorm, thanks to forest management policies that have de-emphasized demonstrated scientific and practical knowledge in favor of procedures based on special interest-driven court rulings and unproven scientific theories about how forests and their inhabitants thrive.

Courts and agencies have ruled that giant swaths of burned areas have to be left alone. They’ve effectively banned sensible forest management practices that protect our forests and communities from costly and destructive fires.

Though a week’s visit certainly doesn’t give me a detailed understanding of the process that led to the Hawaiians’ decision to get those burnt forests back on their feet, so to speak, the end result seems to resonate with a healthy mix of wise practicality (forest restoration) and, well, that aloha spirit.

Maybe we need a little more of that in Oregon, where political processes driven by strident (and litigious) environmental extremism have locked down our forests to serve a few narrow interests.