The easternmost corner of the mile-high Alaka'i Swamp is so remote and wet that it's seldom visited—but goats and pigs are moving in, chewing and churning their way through pristine fields of native sedges, rare lobelias and other rare native plants.
In response, the Kaua'i Watershed Alliance plans to protect the native forest, bogs, streams and wildlife of 2,000 acres of the Alaka'i with a 4.5-mile fence designed to limit access by goats and pigs. The target area is the most remote, northeast corner of the 12,000-acre central Kaua'i upland plain, the fog-shrouded, mile-high source of four of Kauai's major rivers.
“The Alaka'i represents such a unique habitat for us in terms of the bog plants that have evolved there. It's not a habitat that's found anywhere else on our island,” said Chipper Wichman, chairman of the Kaua'i Watershed Alliance and director of the National Tropical Botanical Garden.
The remote landscape is home to 202 species of native plants, 66 of which are found only on Kaua'i. Many are federally protected endangered species. The area also provides habitat for native forest birds, including the 'anianiau, 'amakihi, 'apapane, 'i'iwi and elepaio. The puaiohi or small Kaua'i thrush is believed to inhabit the area, and 'ua'u or Hawaiian petrels have been found nesting here. Koloa or Hawaiian ducks are occasionally seen, as are pueo or Hawaiian owl.
The Alaka'i Swamp is a legally protected area that is seldom visited by hunters or hikers and has no maintained trail access system. But feral animals are moving into the region. Browsing and rooting by goats and pigs are promoting the entry of weeds into the otherwise pristine area, although there are few weeds there now.
“The area is so remote that it’s beyond the reach of most hunters. They usually catch pigs long before they would ever reach this area.” said Trae Menard, Kaua'i program manager for The Nature Conservancy of Hawai'i. “
We've been proactive in working with the hunters so this fence does not negatively impact their ability to feed their families,” Wichman added.
The area proposed for fencing is 7.5 miles from the nearest road, a 4-wheel-drive dirt track. Between the road and the area proposed for the fence is a rugged terrain of forested gullies, bogs, and few passable trails. From the nearest public trailhead, it takes a full day or more of hiking just to reach the proposed fenceline, with no marked trails most of the way.
The Board of Land and Natural Resources plans a public hearing on the Conservation District Use Application for the project on Wednesday, February. 4, between 6 and 7:30 p.m. at the Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School in Līhu'e.
A copy of the draft environmental assessment for the fencing project, along with its cultural, biological and archaeological surveys, is available at the website of the Hawai'i Association of Watershed Partnerships at http://hawp.org.
The proposed fence would protect a roughly rectangular piece of wild country. It would enter the Alaka'i heading southwest from the Wainiha pali (cliff), then turn southeast to the Wai'ale'ale pali, at a point between Wai'ale'ale and Kawaikini. No fences are required on the north or east sides, where the steep cliffs prevent animal access. About 1,405 acres of the area to be enclosed are owned by Alexander & Baldwin, and 595 acres by the state.
The proposed fence is a four-foot-high hogwire structure, with an apron of buried fencing extending outward to prevent animals from burrowing under it. Rare plant communities along the route have been identified and will be avoided as the fence is constructed. The fence will include periodic gates to allow hunter and hiker access to and from the area, but the gates will be designed to prevent feral animals from getting through them.
The project will also include the construction of three tent-like Weatherport fabric shelters, to provide cover for construction workers, maintenance crews and biologists. The proposal also calls for installation of two solar-powered radio repeater stations, to provide communications to crews working in the Alaka'i.
Construction is expected to begin between July and September, and to take about a year to complete. Once construction is done, crews will remove pigs and goats from the 2,000-acre enclosed area.
In addition to protecting wildlife, the fencing project will provide protection from feral animal damage for two cultural features of the area, the shallow cliff-side pond sometimes called Lake Wai'ale'ale and the nearby Ka'awako Shrine.
The most significant weed species in the area include kahili ginger, Australian tree fern and strawberry guava—each of which can form stands so dense that native plants cannot grow.
The Nature Conservancy’s Kaua'i office will oversee the project, which will be put out to bid and the work performed by fencing contractors. The fencing effort is a project of the Kaua'i Watershed Alliance, a consortium of Kaua'i landowners that was formed in 2003 to address watershed issues. It is one of nine such watershed protection partnerships on six islands.
Members of the Kaua'i Watershed Alliance include the county Department of Water, Grove Farm, Jurassic Kahili Ranch, Kamehameha Schools, Kaua‘i Ranch, Līhu‘e Land Company, McBryde Sugar Company, Namahana Farms, National Tropical Botanical Garden, Princeville at Hanalei, and the State Department of Land & Natural Resources.
“This is an important project because the Alaka'i is recognized as a unique ecosystem on our island,” Wichman said. “It is the heart of our watershed and deserves the best protection we can provide for it. This project represents the collaboration of the various partners, and is the kind of project the watershed alliance was formed to proceed with, working through issues that cross over each other's boundaries.”
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.