State lawmakers have agreed to give $300,000 to figure out how to stop a fungus that has killed thousands of native ohia trees on Hawaii island.
Also known as rapid ohia death, the disease has infected thousands of acres of native forests on Hawaii island and is quickly spreading. There is no treatment to protect the trees from the disease, and no cure once they’re infected.
A recent draft of a bill being considered by lawmakers asked for $600,000 to help fund research to stop the fungus. But during a hearing Friday, lawmakers agreed to give $300,000, which could be used to hire more researchers and purchase new equipment.
Lawmakers said they’re still unclear on which agency will receive the money.
Rep. Richard Onishi, who introduced the bill, said he met last year with government agencies and researchers, who said they didn’t have enough funding for rapid ohia death research. When he introduced this year’s bill to fund research efforts, more than half of the House signed the bill.
“The more support you get from your colleagues for signing on to the bill, the greater chance it has at passing to get funding,” said Onishi (D, South Hilo- Keaau-Honuapo).
Ohia trees cover more than 1 million acres statewide and are considered the most important tree for keeping the state’s watersheds healthy. Watersheds provide water for drinking and irrigation worth between $4.6 billion and $8.5 billion, according to the Oahu Invasive Species Committee.
So far, the fungus has spread to at least 35,000 acres on Hawaii island, killing approximately 50 percent to 90 percent of the trees in the infested areas, according to the state Department of Agriculture. Scientists don’t know exactly how trees are infected, but think the fungus can be spread by insects, soil and infected shoes, cars and tools.
But supporters of the bill say it’s important to not only the state’s forests, but Hawaiian culture as a whole. The ohia tree and its flowers have been used in cultural practices like hula for generations, said Piilani Kaawaloa of the Aha Moku Advisory Committee.
“If a cure is not found, this will eventually spread to all islands,” said Kaawaloa. “All of this directly impacts our Native Hawaiian resource practices.”