A View From The Overlook: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park And The Holy Grail

Park Service staff regularly search for outcrops of Kahili ginger, an invasive species they'd like to remove from the park. NPS photo.

One of the most pleasant ranger-led hikes in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is the four-mile Kilauea Iki Trail. It is a 400-foot descent from the moist, rain forest-like rim of the Kilauea Iki crater, then a traverse of the flat stone desert of the crater floor, passing active steam fumaroles, and ascending the opposite side and returning along the crater rim to your car parked at Thurston lave tube.

The leisurely 4 miles gives the ranger plenty of time to educate his/her charges on the geology, botany, ethnobotany, prehistory and history of Hawaii; the good and the bad.

Early on in the hike, the ranger addressed a particularly beautiful plant (all Hawaiian plants are beautiful, but some are more beautiful than others). She grabbed the five-foot high plant by its base and, with a mighty heave, uprooted it. She dropped the plant on the trail and began stomping it. Now plant vandalism usually doesn’t happen on your ranger nature walks in most national parks.

Beautiful, But Unwanted

The beautiful plant was Kahili ginger, one of the most aggressively invasive exotics in the park. Despite the Hawaiian name, it is a native of the Himalayas, and like many exotics, does better in Hawaii than in its native land, so much so, that native plants (and even other exotics) are smothered in a green sea of ginger leaves.

Hawaii Volcanoes is home to more than 400 exotic species from all over the world. (According to the ranger, Kahili ginger was introduced into the park not by the usual villains, farmers or nurserymen, but by one of the early park superintendents who wanted the Kahili ginger for his garden and assured the park botanist that he would never, ever let it escape.) The rest, as they say, is history.

Of the 400 exotics, only about 37 species are actually a menace to the ecosystems of the park. (I realize that is sort of like saying if you are facing a lynch mob of 400 crazed fanatics, you only have to worry about the 37 guys with ropes and guns, but it's true.)

The 37 super successful exotics constitute as much as one third of the total biomass of the park; hundreds of thousands of tons of destructive vegetation.

Is there a solution to the exotic plant problem? Well, sort of.

For the past couple of decades Hawaii has sought the Holy Grail of food and energy self-sufficiency.

Why? Well, why not?

The Hawaiian Islands are among the most remote spots on earth. If the supply ships and barges stopped coming, there would be less than a month’s supply of food and even less than a month’s supply of fuel for transport and electricity generation.

Now it is true that West Coast wholesalers of food and fuel are unlikely to ignore the solid, guaranteed market of Hawaii in favor of trading with, say, India.

Nor is it likely that the United States Navy will be defeated anytime soon, so the MATSON supply freighters will continue to arrive with clock-like regularity in the various Hawaiian ports till Judgment Day.

So why worry?

Well, it is the nature of island states to worry. Japan and Great Britain import a large portion of their food supply and Japan imports most of its energy (Particularly after the Fukishima nuclear disaster).

However, as Adam Smith observed in so many words, “That’s the way the cookie crumbles: No country can be self-sufficient in everything, so they should manufacture and sell the stuff they’re good at and import the stuff they need."

Thank you, Adam.

Aiming For Self-Sufficiency

However, many Hawaiians don’t look at it that way. If you have to import everything, then everything is very, very expensive. They are correct: Hawaii has the most expensive fuel and the most expensive electricity and just about the most expensive everything else anywhere in the U.S. except, possibly, Alaska.

Would it be possible for Hawaii to produce most of what it uses, both food and energy?

The present governor of Hawaii, Neil Abercrombie, believes that the answer had better be “Yes!” According to Abercrombie: “Food and fuel self-sufficiency is important. Not for some romantic vision of going back to the land, so much as the absolute necessity of survival in the 21st century.”

The governor’s wish is a possibility due to an unforeseen event; the collapse of the cane sugar plantation economy in Hawaii due to cheap foreign competition. Cane sugar is one of those sinister, pernicious crops, like tobacco, that have no wholesome nutritive value and is one of the leading causes of obesity and diabetes in the U.S.

Although sugar is a dangerous product, it is stoutly defended by the sugar lobby as well as its multitude of addicts. In North America, cane sugar is mainly produced by right-wing Republicans in Florida and a communist dictatorship in Cuba. (There’s a moral in there somewhere, neighbors!)

The collapse of the Hawaiian cane sugar plantation economy has freed up land for other, more healthy uses including small family-sized truck-farming opportunities, raising every hot weather crop from bananas, to mangos to papayas and dozens more from the tropical cornucopia. Even dairy products do not seem to be a problem, as 95 percent of the milk consumed on the Big Island of Hawaii is produced on that island.

So it may be possible for Hawaii to become self-sufficient in food.

Electrical energy and transportation fuel may be a bit more difficult.

Electrical energy is produced by a public utility, the Hawaii Electric Light Company. The company, like most power monopolies, is disliked by its customers, who agree that its unfortunate acronym, HELCO, fully describes who is in charge.

HELCO charges some of the highest rates in the nation and would like to charge more, threatening that it may not be able to meet the power demand.

On the surface, this may seem strange as Hawaii is blessed with every conceivable renewable energy possibility:

* Wind (There are several wind farms),

* Geothermal (Yes, a viable option on the Big Island, where there is a geothermal plant),

* Hydro power (A number of streams and irrigation tunnels available).

* Solar (quite popular with isolated property owners),

* Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (which produces electricity by taking advantage of temperature differences in the ocean water column; Lockeed-Martin has a OTEC pilot project to go on line in 2013) and the most promising of the alternatives, and,

* Wave-action electricity generation, which makes use of God’s perpetual motion machine, sea waves, to generate electricity, and burning garbage to make steam generated electricity. Altogether, HELCO generates 37 percent of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources.

However, the bulk of its electricity comes from big diesel engines hooked up to generators. The diesel engines are powered by fossil diesel fuel supplied at a high price from people who do not always like us. That may change.

Growing Energy

A local company by the name of Aina Kuo Pono has contracted with HELCO to supply 16 million gallons of biodiesel manufactured from locally grown plant material to fuel HELCO’s diesel generators. They will produce an additional 8 million gallons of biodiesel per year for transport (trucks, buses etc.)

Using a process called Microwave Catalytic Depolymerzation, they will make this biodiesel from just about any material containing carbon: specially grown feedstock, wood, agricultural waste, sewerage sludge, garbage, exotic plants, Tea Party Republicans, Liberal Democrats (your preference).

Does this process really work? Can you really extract the Holy Grail of renewable energy from essentially waste material? Well, I don’t know. Some folks on the Big Island think it’s an elaborate con job. You just never can tell! Folks of a certain age back home in South Dakota still believe that there was an inventor who came up with a carburetor that could burn water, but before he could patent it, Standard Oil killed him.

The preference of Aina Kuo Pono is for specially grown feedstock (probably sweet sorghum) to be grown on a 12,000-acre energy farm. However, the energy farm is not yet up and running. AKP is thus casting about for substitute feedstock. Could they utilize the exotic plant species on the Hawaii State Forest Lands? I reckon the reply would be “With bells on!

This brings us to Hawaii Volcano National Park with its precious supply of exotic weeds from all over the Earth, a biomass that constitutes nearly one-third of the park’s vegetation cover. Could the park bring itself to part with its exotics? Could they legally do so? I am just curious if the exotics could be harvested. It should be noted in big, bold letters that neither AKP nor the management of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park have proposed that the park’s exotic species be harvested for biodiesel, but it is a thought.

No one is quite sure when fossil fuel production will actually peak, but Governor Abercrombie is correct; pretty soon we are going to have to start growing the stuff, and not just in Hawaii.