The Giving Seed (9/12/02)
Posted by Ann Bell
years I have heard U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists
"talk story" about a string of islets and atolls
stretching far out to sea. From rocky 900-foot rocky islands
to the sometimes fully submerged atolls like Maro Reef-the
Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are the 'string of ecological
pearls' where passionate biologists gather data, visit and
sometimes camp out for months at a time. This place was
set aside in 1909 and now protected as the Hawaiian Islands
National Wildlife Refuge. After eight years of working for
the Service in the Hawaiian Islands as an educator, now
is my chance to experience first hand the place that has
inspired commitment and dedication by each and every scientist
and field manager that has had the pleasure of working in
this incredible region of the globe.
before the ship left shore in Honolulu five days ago, Alex
Wegmann, anthropologist by trade, now Refuge biologist,
told me with a sly smile, "Just wait till you see the
pristine basalt rock islands at the beginning of our journey.
They are like no other." After visiting these islands,
Nihoa and Mokumanamana (Necker Island), two days ago, it
is clear how understated his words were. It's because there
are not words to describe these ancient islands. These are
the places where humans, centuries past, were briefly present.
But they remain places where nature is still at the helm,
where native plant species reign as they did before humans
mastered how to get ashore on these rocky, steep walled
our boat approached this massive rocky place, my eyes tried
to focus on what features stood out. For me it was the stately
loulu, a native Nihoa fan palm. They clustered in the crevices
where the island leaked the only ground water trapped between
this plant has evolved to endure and yet stand, spins the
mind. I thought plants on the barrier islands of the East
Coast of the United States had it rough. But I have a new
definition of ' rough.' These palms have been the only existing
plant shade for hundreds of square miles in the vast Northern
Pacific. They live up against extreme, harsh and volatile
wind and water forces against a back drop of black rock.
our small rubber dingy bumped ashore in tune with a rising
wave, Alex Wegmann caught our bodies to limit the rock bruises.
I tried to keep up with this half man, half mountain goat
to no avail. For 7 days he had lived in a small wind blown
tent by night, and endured intense sun, salty wind and heat
by day and loved every second.
first relief my tired hot body felt was provided by shade
of the Nihoa palms. I learned other organisms had found
homage there as well. Centuries in the making some evolved
into specialized plants and insects that live nowhere else
in the world.
of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's missions for Alex's
stay on Nihoa was to collect the priceless Nihoa palm seeds.
These seeds could then be taken aboard the Rapture and transported
to a select island further north. That select island would
be Laysan, an island that already lost its majestic native
palms due to human disturbance. Alex collected 200 seeds
and yesterday, began removing the fleshy surface and sterilized
the seeds to facilitate the germination process. Sterilization
also helps to ensure we did not transport any insects or
molds that do not naturally belong on Laysan.
earlier 20th century expedition reports, we knew these palms
existed on the sandy island of Laysan. A century ago people
extracted its resources for commercial purposes and thus
disrupted its native ecosystem causing extinction of a palm
of the same species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
is in the midst of restoring the true native essence of
this island through propagating and then out-planting what
once was its native flora, or plant-life. We will arrive
on Laysan Island in a few days and there the loulu seeds
from Nihoa will be planted.
now appreciate more than ever the natural, inherent values
and gifts of the high islands of this remote part of the
Hawaiian archipelago that were inhospitable to exploitation
activities. We have chosen to malama (care for and protect)
Nihoa and similarly Mokumanamana like you would protect
a photo of your Great Great Grandmother. We still harness
her energy, but must protect it at all costs so we can learn
from the fabric of her life. We need to holdfast to her
wisdom and carry it forth as a way to provide energy and
life for other islands in more need of hands on management
and care. Yet, we must do so with as few visits as possible
to minimize our impact. We will not set up a permanent camp
on Nihoa or allow recreational or commercial visits, but
we will gently and thoughtfully do annual assessments of
her health and well being to garner that source of energy
and use it for restoring our misdeeds of the past.