Case Studies

The Hawaiian Islands Land Trust – Waihe’e Coastal Dunes and Wetlands Refuge

Once slated for development as a golf course, the Waihe’e Coastal Dunes and Wetlands Refuge protects over 24 acres of coastal, spring-fed wetland, 103 acres of dune ecosystem, over 7000 feet of marine shoreline and more than 8 acres of riparian habitat for the recovery of native birds and native vegetation. The Land Trust took fee ownership of this very sensitive 277-acre site in 2004. Active restoration programs have enhanced critical native wildlife habitat, while preserving the area’s rich archaeological and cultural resources. Once populated with two thriving ancient Hawaiian villages, an extensive inland fishpond and several heiau (Hawaiian temples), the Waihe’e Refuge is among the most significant cultural sites in the state.

Value of the land and habitat

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 level rose 10 ft. or more, it has been 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 land trust’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.

Conservation concerns

Habitat restoration, including recovery of native flora and fauna, as well as historically farmed crops such as taro are primary conservation priorities of the Waihe’e Refuge. In testament to the returning health of the ecosystem, eight different endangered species have taken up residence at the Refuge in recent years. With the wetlands primarily cleared and habitat-appropriate plants now thriving, the area is host to many native Hawaiian bird species, including ae‘o (stilt), alae ke‘oke‘o (coot), koloa (duck), and even nene (goose).

Habitat restoration work is continuing, focusing on the wetlands at the moment, with plans to do habitat restoration in the coastal dunes as well. These are large dunes – about 200ft high – which offer ideal sea bird habitat.  Sea birds are of particular concern due to serious population loss on the main islands, and the fact that there is not a lot of habitat left for them, and they face risks of predators on the bigger islands. Sea level rise impacts also a concern.

Protecting agricultural lands to enhance food sustainability is a conservation priority for the Land Trust, but these activities are mostly occurring on other properties. However there are about 200 sheep ranging on the Waihe’e Refuge to support CSA efforts and nine taro patches under restoration.  While the taro fields only occupy about ½ acre on the Refuge, the group leasing land is part of a “taro task force” aiming to protect biodiversity of those taro crops, and their efforts aim to build resilience in these crops.

Current protection status and management plan

The Hawaiian Island Land Trust (HILT) aims 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 HILT (formerly Maui Coastal Land Trust) 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 HILT welcomes volunteers to the Waihe’e Refuge to remove invasive species and plant native species. The land trust 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.

Process of achieving protection and resilience to climate change

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 has 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.

Key Partners

Acquisition was funded by the County of Maui ($2M), the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) ($2M), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) (800k). Management funding has come from USFWS, USDA NRCS Wetlands Reserve Program, NOAA, other grants and private funding from foundations, individuals and groups.

Watch HILT's video about their work on the Waihe'e Coastal Dunes and Wetlands Refuge here.
Watch HILT’s video about their work on the Waihe’e Coastal Dunes and Wetlands Refuge here.

Lessons Learned

  • It is important to achieve a good understanding of adaptive management and come up with creative ways that adaptive management principles can be applied in the field. It is crucial that land managers understand these principles in order to address future change.