Weed Busters!

Protecting Molokai's Native Forest

“They’re working everywhere – they have great coverage. When they leave a site, they know exactly what’s there...and what they removed.”

By Grady Timmons

Wailana ("Wai") Moses spends most of her working hours combing the native forests of east Moloka‘i for invasive weeds. It’s a discipline she’s honed for eight years now, the last four as leader of the Conservancy’s Moloka‘i weed crew, and it’s made her attuned to what looks out of the ordinary. 

In April 2007, she and fellow crewmember Kathy Coelho were out tracking weeds when they came across a mysterious vine that scientists later identified as Phyllostegia hispida, a rare mint native to Moloka‘i.

“Most people thought it was extinct,” says Russell Kallstrom, GIS coordinator for the Moloka‘i crew. “And then Wai and Kathy come across this mother lode of 10 plants. It was quite a find.”

Battling Weeds

For Wailana, it was also an encouraging sign. Success in battling forest-choking weeds is a long-term proposition, often taking years to achieve. “But when you see the natives coming back,” she says, “that’s when you know you’re getting somewhere.” 

Wailana began fighting weeds in the summer of 2000 when she was awarded a Conservancy internship after graduating from Moloka‘i High School. She continued on as an AmeriCorps intern before being hired in 2001. Three years later, she was promoted to weed coordinator for Moloka‘i programs.

Since then, she has built a strong, dedicated team that, in addition to Coelho, includes Justin Avelino and AmeriCorps intern Scott Dudoit. Kallstrom and Kawehi Soares help Wai track the GPS data and also assist in the field. Following a master plan she helped create, and the quarterly goals she sets, the group is making remarkable progress. 

Three or four days a week the team is up in the forest, where they are often joined by Lori Buchanan of the State’s Moloka‘i invasive species unit. Together, they have already swept 1,200 acres, logged 3,000 hours and removed 15,000 weeds this year.

“They’re working everywhere – they have great coverage,” says Ed Misaki, director of the Conservancy’s Moloka‘i programs. “When they leave a site, they know exactly what’s there, what’s not there and what they removed.”

The area they are responsible for is vast – 10,000 acres of Moloka‘i Watershed Partnership lands that encompass high-elevation rain forests and a band of drier forest and shrublands below. Strawberry guava, blackberry, tibouchina and clidemia are their primary weed targets, but the crew also removes paper barks and pines.  

The work is tough. Just getting there is an hour’s drive over muddy, rutted roads that can require the use of tire chains. “The first area we went in and surveyed, it was a three-mile hike in and a three-mile hike out.” Wailana says. “And that’s not including surveying for four or five hours. So it’s 10 to 12 miles a day sometimes. And then you have to drive back down, clean up, download your GPS unit and get your field sheets in to Russell. That’s a day.”

Weather is the chief deterrent – days when the roads are impassable or there is bone-chilling wind and rain. “When you see everyone turning blue, you know it’s time to go in,” Wailana says.

Remarkably, there has been only one mishap. That was the day an intern accidentally stuck his tree-puller into a nest of ground wasps. Kallstrom, who was following directly behind, bore the brunt of the attack. He was stung 130 times, including 87 times to the head, and had to be ambulanced out.

Braving Weather and Wasps

To do their job, the crew comes equipped with gloves, boots and rain gear, a first-aid kit, weed cutters, tree pullers, machetes and, of course, their trusty GPS devices. These hand-sized remotes have transformed weed management, allowing the crew to input the exact location of every plant they remove, what kind it is and whether or not it’s mature (flowering). That information is then entered into a computer and used to create elaborate GIS maps that show everything that’s been accomplished.

The crew works as a unit, walking 10-meters apart in a flank as they conduct systematic sweeps down through the forest. Should they find a target weed, such as clidemia or tibouchina, they carefully clip away the fruit and seed material, pull the plant out of the ground, stuff it all in a double trash bag and haul it out of the forest. Herbicide use is minimal and applied only with eyedroppers.

As the team gains experience, they are learning when to go back and retreat a population. “We try and return before the population matures again, with the goal of eventually getting the seed bank out,” Kallstrom says. “That’s the gold standard of weed control we’re trying to achieve. If a plant doesn’t mature, it’s not putting out any more seeds, and you are eventually going to contain or eliminate it.”

He cites as an example an area known as the Kamalo Blackberry Bowl, where they have returned year after year. “The blackberry here was once eight feet tall, with thick brambles over your head,” he says. “At first, we were just trying to avoid getting cut up by the thorns. And now, it’s amazing to see the change that has taken place. We’re starting to see the native vines growing back, and lots of other cool stuff.”

Wailana cannot suppress a smile. “Seeing the natives coming back is the best part of the job,” she says. “That’s when you know you’re winning."

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