Forest and Kim Starr, USGS

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Project Summary/Overview

The Waihe’e Coastal Dunes and Wetlands Refuge was purchased by the Maui Coastal Land Trust in 2004. Since 2011, the Hawaiian Islands Land Trust has managed the site. The refuge has a total area of 277 acres containing vital habitats such as wetlands and marine shoreline and has one of the largest remaining, intact sand dune systems in all of Hawaii. The site is also a place of historical significance in the Hawaiian culture. Climate change will have unavoidable impacts on the site, particularly due to sea level rise. To increase the site’s resilience to climate change, managers are working with volunteers to remove invasive plants and replant the area with native plants. Volunteers are educated about the effects climate change is having and is projected to have on the site. Waihe’e Refuge serves as a living classroom to showcase climate adaptation. 

Project Background

The Hawaiian Islands are projected to be vulnerable to multiple impacts of climate change including sea level rise, changes in precipitation, and warmer temperatures. The Maui Coastal Land Trust (MCLT) was established in 2001 with the goal of protecting and conserving coastal lands in perpetuity in Maui County in partnership with landowners, government, and community members using land easements, purchases, and acquisitions. In 2011, Maui Coastal Land Trust merged with the Kauai Public Land Trust, the Oahu Land Trust, and the Hawaii Island Land Trust to form the Hawaiian Islands Land Trust (HILT).

In 2004, MCLT acquired the 277-acre Waihe’e Dairy property located between Waihe’e Park and Waihe’e Point on the north coast of Maui, Hawaii. Prior to MCLT’s involvement, the property was slated for development as a destination golf course. Waihe’e Coastal Dunes and Wetlands Refuge (Waihe’e Refuge) has both natural and cultural import. The refuge is an important historical site for the Hawaiian culture; kings have resided there, battles were fought, and it is an important site in Hawaiian legends. Also, an old fishing village, Hawaiian fish ponds and burial sites have been discovered at the Waihe’e Refuge. The refuge has a wide variety of natural habitats as well including wetlands, dune systems, marine shoreline, and riparian systems. Six endangered taxa, two endangered plants, and two endangered insects have also been found on the site. Many of the important cultural and archeological sites at Waihe’e Refuge are located in sand dunes that are at or near the water’s edge. As sea level rises, the sand dunes could become inundated with salt water or transformed into sandy beaches. If sea levels rise  10 feet or more, it is estimated that 50-60% of the entire 277-acre refuge could be submerged. Unfortunately, there is little that can be done to abate the ocean. Sea walls or other protective structures have been ruled out at as a solution because they are not a long-term, viable option. A hardened shoreline would alter sediment input to nearby sites, have cascading consequences into the future, and go against the MCLT’s goals to preserve, protect, and restore natural landscapes. As such, managers have selected to work to restore the Waihe’e Refuge to the state it would have been in 200 years ago in the hopes that restoration will act as a source of resilience.

Project Implementation

MCLT (now HILT) wants to restore the Waihe’e Refuge to reflect the cultural and natural state it would have been in 200 years ago. This vision requires a lot of labor-intensive work; when MCLT acquired the Waihe’e Refuge, roughly 95% of the plants found on the site were considered to be invasive species. To implement its vision, the land trust has relied upon volunteers to help restore the Waihe’e Refuge. Every Friday and the third Saturday of every month, the HILT welcomes volunteers to the Waihe’e Refuge to remove invasive species and plant native species. HILT has also welcomed working groups on “work vacations” and promoted its site for cultural tourism. Local school children also visit to learn about the historical importance of the site in the Hawaiian culture. HILT is working to restore sources of natural resilience at the Waihe’e Refuge. Restoring the Waihe’e Refuge to its historical, natural state will encourage native plants to take hold of the site again, thereby enhancing the natural resilience of the system. A healthy, more resilient landscape could buffer the impacts of climate change better than a damaged landscape could. The wetland is now up to 70% native species and native plants and birds have begun to naturally repopulate the surrounding landscape. HILT had to be sensitive of the cultural significance of the burial sites located in the sand dunes when they were designing a restoration plan for that area. To minimize intrusive actions, the land trust selected to fence off the sand dunes to reduce foot traffic and exclude invasive predators. Since then, endangered bird species have begun to nest on the sand dunes and the birds have acted as a natural vector and fertilizer for native plants. The sand dunes are slowly being repopulated with native plants and are providing a sanctuary for some of Hawaii’s endangered bird species.

Project Outcomes and Conclusions

It is the HILT’s hope that the site can help to educate volunteers about the unavoidable impacts of climate change and raise issue awareness. On-site volunteers learn about the cultural and natural significance of Waihe’e Refuge and are then introduced to some of the unavoidable impacts climate change will have on the site. The volunteers have a chance to witness firsthand the effects climate change will have on important areas, and Waihe’e Refuge serves as a living classroom to showcase climate change. Volunteers walk away with a new perspective on the impacts of climate change and are also told different things they can do personally to reduce their carbon footprint.

Recommended Citation

Feifel, K. & Gregg, R.M. (2010). Waihe'e Refuge Restoration Project [Case study on a project of the Maui Coastal Land Trust]. Product of EcoAdapt's State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from CAKE: http://www.cakex.org/case-studies/waihe’e-refuge-restoration-project (Last updated December 2011)