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Hirono proposes $55M to combat rapid ohia death in Hawaii

The battle to save Hawaii’s native forests against rapid ohia death is expected to be a long and arduous one, in need of ongoing federal support.

To boost those efforts, U.S. Sen. Mazie K. Hirono today introduced the Continued Rapid Ohia Death Response Act of 2022, which would authorize $55 million in federal funding through 2023 to combat the fungal disease.

Rapid ohia death has killed more than 1 million ohia trees in Hawaii since its discovery in 2014, according to Hirono’s office. For many years the fungal blight had been detected only on Hawaii island, but in recent years has been found on KauaiOahu and Maui.

The proposed bill sets aside $5 million per fiscal year from 2023 through 2033 to support ongoing efforts by federal agencies including the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service to work with state agencies on the problem.

“Ohia trees are Hawaii’s most abundant native tree, making up nearly 80% of our native forests,” said Hirono, a member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, in a news release. “But over the last decade, rapid ohia death has decimated Hawaii’s ohia population, presenting an existential threat to our environment and the species’ future. As a key component of our watersheds, ohia play an important role in protecting our native ecosystems and preventing erosion and flooding.”

Federal agencies have played an important role in supporting Hawaii’s research, education and land management efforts to combat the disease, she said. The act would ensure that partnership with the state continues.

Ohia lehua, or Metrosi­deros polymorpha, is the most abundant native tree in Hawaii, with buds that range from crimson red to brilliant yellow.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources said Ceratocystis was identified as the fungal pathogen that caused rapid ohia death on Hawaii island in 2014. The Ceratocystis fungi has since been recognized as two distinct species — Ceratocystis huliohia and Ceratocystis lukuohia — with significantly different pathologies. Both, however, ultimately lead to tree mortality.

Researchers think the fungal pathogens can spread over long distances, potentially killing trees across the entire state.

The proposed bill would direct the Department of the Interior and its agencies to continue providing resources for research on rapid ohia death vectors and transmission, and to work with the state on the management of ungulates, or hoofed animals, which studies have found exacerbate the spread of the fungal disease, on federal, state and private lands.

Additionally, the Department of Agriculture’s U.S. Forest Service would provide financial assistance for efforts to prevent the spread of rapid ohia disease and restore native forests in Hawaii, and also continue to support the Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry of Hilo’s research.

DLNR Chair Suzanne Case said in the release that ohia lehua “is the most important native tree in Hawaii for protection of our life-giving forest watersheds” and called funding for research to find a treatment for the fungal infection “of critical importance.”