CONSERVATION ON MAUI FACING MAJOR FUNDING CUTBACKS

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Agencies fear loss of momentum on protection programs

MAUI, Hawaii (The Maui News, February 22, 2009) – Environmental programs like miconia eradication, coqui frog control and watershed fencing could see major setbacks in the face of a severe state funding shortfall, conservationists are warning.

The state's Natural Area Reserve Fund, which supports watershed partnerships, invasive species committees and Natural Area Reserves throughout the state, anticipates having only $6 million available for grants in the fiscal year that starts July 1. That's down 46 percent from the $11.2 million the fund had available this year.

The shortfall means some agencies will see state funding reduced by nearly 70 percent.

"It's huge," said Jordan Jokiel, project manager for East Maui Watershed Partnership. "We've got to start thinking about damage control and laying people off. And the thing is, we've had these successes with invasive species. We lose those gains."

Jokiel said his agency was preparing for a 60 percent cut in its Natural Area Reserve Fund grant, or around $350,000 - 40 percent of its total budget.

The fund's revenue comes from the state conveyance tax, a tax paid on real estate sales. And with the housing market slumping, the conveyance tax take has plummeted.

Statewide, fund-supported programs will see deep cuts, according to projections by the Department of Land and Natural Resources, including:

Other environmental programs supported by the conveyance tax are also expecting a significant decline, including the Land Conservation Fund, which is used to help the state acquire land for preservation.

The budget cuts are alarming, because they mean conservationists likely won't be able to keep up the gains they've made against invasive species and other environmental challenges in the past several years, said Teya Penniman, manager of Maui Invasive Species Committee.

Of 14 known coqui frog hot spots on Maui, the Maui group has eradicated seven and brought five more under control, she said. The agency is launching a big assault on an entrenched population of the noisy, invasive frogs in Maliko Gulch. But that project may not be feasible if MISC loses funding, she said.

On another front, miconia seeds can remain dormant for up to 14 years, so the committee's workers try to make regular patrols of infested areas, killing trees before they fruit. But if patrols are cut back and trees aren't eliminated before they release their seeds, the plants could spread and multiply far into the future.

"Any time you stop your forward momentum on invasive species, you're going to lose ground," Penniman said. "Not only are the plants or the coqui frogs going to be busy reproducing, but there's going to be a loss of momentum on the training of field staff."

In addition to a cut in its Natural Area Reserve funding, Penniman said her agency expects it will lose all state general-fund grants, resulting in a 50 percent total cut in its state funding. She said MISC is also preparing to lose an additional 25 percent of state funding in 2011.

The cuts are likely to result in layoffs at many conservation programs, Penniman said.

Maui conservation groups have already been meeting to identify the island's biggest potential environmental "train wrecks" and talk about how they can collaborate to prevent them, she said.

"If collectively we lose one-third of our staff, it's going to be hard for those remaining to cover the losses," she said.

While conservation programs are seeing deep cuts in their state funding, Mayor Charmaine Tavares has indicated she wants to maintain county grants for the programs.

The county currently awards $1.1 million in grants for environmental protection programs, $875,000 for watershed partnerships and restoration, and $250,000 specifically earmarked for miconia eradication.

"Maintaining funding would be vital to our efforts against invasive species and the protection of our natural resources," she said in a written statement.

But Tavares added that funding for the programs could be affected if the county loses its share of funding from the state transient accommodation tax, an option that has been floated at the state Legislature. The county currently receives millions of dollars annually from the state taxes on hotel rooms.

Jokiel said the $200,000 the East Maui Watershed Partnership gets from the county makes up about 30 percent of the program's total budget.

"That means a lot to us, that kind of support," he said.

Most counties don't supplement the state-funded watershed programs, and Jokiel applauded Maui County as "the most progressive county (he's) worked in."

But without the "bread and butter" Natural Area Reserve grants, the East Maui partnership will see setbacks, he said.

Where the group currently inspects and repairs watershed fences every three months, it might have to cut back inspections to every six months. Unmaintained fences could allow grazing animals like goats, deer and pigs to enter and damage pristine watershed areas.

"Imagine letting your yard go for a couple of years," Jokiel said.

Losing state money could also prevent the program from accessing other private or federal grants that require matching funds, he noted. That could stop the partnership from starting new ventures - such as a project to protect an extremely rare mountain bog complex discovered above Hana.

West Maui Mountains Watershed Partnership Coordinator Chris Brosius agreed his program would likely not be able to start new projects if the cuts happen.

"We would have to virtually reduce our programs to maintenance levels, as opposed to being progressive," he said.

The West Maui partnership is anticipating a 60-percent cut in state grants in fiscal 2010, and a potential 73-percent cut in 2011, he said.

"It's coming down the pipe," Brosius said. "Honestly, we are scrambling. We're taking a harder look at other funding sources, and we may have to reduce our staff."

Brosius said he was hopeful environmental programs could be eligible for some federal economic stimulus money, noting that operations like watershed partnerships generate a lot of jobs, and that the environment overall is as important to Hawaii as any other infrastructure.

"Without maintaining funding for it, it could set us back several years," he said. "The problems we engage are biological, and if we don't keep them in check, they'll rebound."

The Maui News: www.mauinews.com

 

 

 

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