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Watershed Events

An increasing number of businesses are discovering that saving the rainforest makes good economic sense.

It is hard to believe that 100 years ago, Hawaii, with only a fraction of the population it has today, had a fresh water problem. Actually, the Islands had a tree problem, which would have quickly led to water shortages across the state.

“Cattle farming was big a century ago so a lot of places were overgrazed,” says Grady Timmons, communications director for The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii. “When you have a healthy rainforest, it acts like a giant sponge, soaking up rainfall and allowing it to flow through streams and into the ground.”

According to Timmons, government and business leaders of the time realized that to grow sugar they needed water and to get water they needed a forest. A public-private partnership was formed, which eventually developed forest reserves and launched one of the most successful forestry programs in the country, planting millions of trees throughout Hawaii.

Alien invasion: Non-native plants like miconia threaten Hawaii's rainforest.

However, 100 years later, Hawaii’s watersheds are deteriorating, under attack by feral hoofed animals like pigs, goats and deer and aggressive non-native weeds. With government funding scarce and with threatened lands falling across several property lines, conservationists have turned back to the idea of forming partnerships to save the forest. Called watershed partnerships, these agreements bring together federal, state and county agencies, environmental organizations and private landowners to form a single organization that benefits from the pooled resources and expertise of all partners involved. The level of participation varies, from donations of personnel and cash to even the land itself.

In 1991, the East Maui Watershed Partnership was formed through a joint initiative of the State Department of Land and Natural Resources, The Nature Conservancy, the County of Maui Board of Water Supply, Haleakala Ranch Co., East Maui Irrigation Co., Ltd., Haleakala National Park and Hana Ranch. The project brought more than 100,000 acres of critical watershed and native forest habitat into active management.

Seven years after the East Maui agreement, the West Maui Partnership, protecting 47,000 acres, was formed. And last year watershed agreements for Molokai and Oahu’s Koolau Mountains were formed.

“It’s not hard to convince the private landowners to see the economic benefit of these partnerships,” says Timmons. “They recognize that protecting the biodiversity and water is in their best interest.”

Indeed. According to a recent study by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, if Oahu’s Koolau forests were suddenly lost as a result of fire, the value of the water lost would be $4.6 billion to $8.5 billion.

“If you are talking about quarterly profits, well, this kind of investment won’t show any benefit,” adds Randy Bartlett, a watershed supervisor for Maui Land and Pineapple, which participates in the West Maui Partnership “This is a long-term investment for the company and the whole community.”

According to Bartlett, his company pays for one third of the project’s $335,000 budget, in addition to the salaries of four full-time staffers whose time is spent fending off weeds and feral animals.

“You’ve got to make an investment in the protection and maintenance of the watershed to ensure the quality of the water that comes from it,” says Avery Chumbley, president of Maui Agribusiness and State Senator for Maui’s 6th district. “I think the West Maui Partnership along with our sister agreement, the East Maui Partnership, can really set the standard for other conservation efforts throughout the state.”

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Hawaii Business,November