Earth Day May Be Over But Maui County Environmental Coordinator Rob Parsons Is Busier Than Ever

Just because Earth Day has passed, that doesn’t mean we can all go back to our fast food meals, sports utility vehicles and 15 gadget chargers. Sure, Maui seems more enlightened than many places on matters like protection for endangered species and clean energy, but on others we can use considerable improvement.

To get a read on the county’s environmental situation, I recently sat down with Maui County Environmental Coordinator (and former MauiTime columnist) Rob Parsons.

MAUITIME: So how is the County of Maui doing on environmental matters?

ROB PARSONS: First of all, I’d say we’re recognized in the rest of the state as being a leader in environmental efforts, conservation efforts and funding devoted to these efforts. We have five of the state’s 11 watershed partnerships. East Maui was the first–it’s 20 years old now.

We also have the only watershed restoration partnership. Art Medeiros founded that 10 years ago. If you look it up on Google Earth, the Auwahi Preserve is a green oasis in the otherwise desolate, dry side of the mountain.

And we’re celebrating the 10th year of having the environmental coordinator position that Mayor Alan Arakawa established in 2003.

MT: How’s the job treating you?

PARSONS: In my estimation, it makes sense to grow it beyond just one appointed position. It’s not a new idea–it was something the mayor was concerned with a long time ago. But I think I’m bumping my head on the ceiling in terms of what one person can accomplish, even with one student intern. This is an area where I think we’re not up to speed with other counties.

MT: So what have you been working on recently?

PARSONS: I met with a guy from the University of the Yukon.* They purchased a machine, made in Japan, that converts plastic into a usable fuel. I’ve heard of these things, but I never knew anyone who followed through and got one. Anyway, it’s about the third generation of this device, and the first in North America. It’s a small model, and he’s been to conferences talking about it. It’s an element to our whole recycling discussion.

MT: How so?

PARSONS: Well, there are things that will never make sense to recycle here. Because recycling out here really means collecting them and shipping them out.

MT: Such as?

PARSONS: Glass, for one. Cost is too high. But metals pay off. Recycling electronics pay off, too. What we really need to sort it all out is a sustainability summit. I’ve heard that so many times from so many people. We’ve talked about eco-tourism, ag-tourism–I see that as a logical focus.

MT: Ok. What else is going on at the moment?

PARSONS: I also see that there are basic, moral collisions in dealing with things here. Particularly with invasive species.

MT: Which ones in particular?

PARSONS: Axis deer. We have brought in state money–$73,000, and we made up the shortfall of what we originally budgeted. There’s also been a Maui Axis Deer Working Group for two and a half years. We have a draft management plan, and we’re hiring a coordinator position. Eighteen have applied, and we interviewed the top six candidates. It’s up to RCUH (Research Corporation of the University of Hawaii) to do the hiring.

The Office of Economic Development also issued a grant for $37,500 to the Maui Axis Deer Working Group. Ultimately, they’re looking to establish whether it’s viable to set up a venison industry–to control such numbers so they can get USDA certification. It costs to get USDA inspectors, both in the field and in the slaughterhouse.
We’d be taking an invasive species and turning it into an opportunity, a business opportunity, to address food here.

MT: Sounds controversial.

PARSONS: It is. But the Axis Deer Working Group had a helicopter pilot talk to us last fall. He said the number of goats on the backside, out by Kaupo, is in the neighborhood of 15,000–they’re just everywhere. From the helicopter, he said, they looked like fleas on a dog’s back. And that’s not even on our radar.

MT: How do we deal with those kinds of numbers?

PARSONS: Fencing is part of it, aerial hunting maybe. We definitely steered away from that in dealing with axis deer. The harvesting co-op has taken down about 200 deer so far, and they report that every doe they’ve found is pregnant.

MT: Killing deer as part of environmental management…

PARSONS: I like what Teya Penniman of the Maui Invasive Species Committee said: “Nature out of place, out of balance.” We’re trying to restore balance.

MT: Where else are you trying to “restore balance?”

PARSONS: Feral cats. There are probably 300 feral cat colonies here. Unless there’s a robust program to trap, spay and neuter, we’ll continue to see them grow and grow, at the expense of our bird population–our endangered bird population.

Even feral chickens are kind of out of control. Some people don’t want to see any of them killed. But chickens are turning up in more and more places.

MT: Ok, let’s talk about something slightly less inflammatory–cane burning.

PARSONS: That continues to be at top or near the top in terms of the number of complaints I get, whether it’s open field burning, fugitive dust or emissions from the Pu‘unene mill.

It’s such a polarized debate that it’s left little room for reasonable debate on meaningful alternatives. It’s dealing with conflict on the playground-level. I think having a robust discussion, through a sustainable ag workshop or series of workshops, might begin to bridge the gap.

MT: Ok. How about marine issues? Anything to report there?

PARSONS: It’s not so much the county’s kuleana–our jurisdiction stops at the shoreline–but that hasn’t stopped us from doing what’s important. We’re talking about things like aquarium fish collectors. We added oversight to our permitting and regulation process. For the first time, what you pay for a permit is commensurate with what it costs the county to issue licenses. It costs something like $650 if you want to be an aquarium fish collector. There might be some outlaws, but we’ve greatly discouraged that from happening.

MT: How about fishing in general?

PARSONS: About a year and a half ago, fishermen came to us talking about parrotfish. They said there were three fishing operations going out with scuba and spears, going after parrotfish. You can go into markets and see coolers full of them. And they’re all head shots, shot at night.

They’re also delicious–it’s kind of a bummer in natural selection.

MT: They’re an endangered species. What can be done?

PARSONS: There are restraints, but no one is checking. The state [Department of Land and Natural Resources] doesn’t have the staff to go to markets, check for size, licenses, etc. And once again, the cost of a license should be commensurate with the cost to the department to issue it. They could also say parrotfish are not for commercial sale.

Parrotfish are the cornerstone of the coral reef ecosystem. But many snorkelers are saying they don’t see them anymore.

MT: With the state DLNR overwhelmed, what can the county reasonably do about issues like that?

PARSONS: Some of our Palau exchange partners are coming to Maui in June. We went there in February of last year. The president of Palau is one of those coming. He’s a strong conservationist. The Nature Conservancy is doing amazing things on coral reef protection in Micronesia.

In Palau, they’ve managed to protect something like 50 percent of their ocean resources, as opposed to the two to three percent that are protected in the main Hawaiian waters.

MT: How were they able to accomplish that?

PARSONS: Palau is a sovereign nation of 21,000 people. They get 2,000 to 3,000 visitors a week, something like that. And they have a “green tax.” When you leave the country, you pay I think $35, which goes toward conservation efforts. In the past it’s been as high as $50.

Then there’s “Jellyfish Island.” For over 10,000 years, jellyfish there have evolved and lost their sting, since there are no natural predators. But if you want to go to the Rock Islands, then there’s a user fee. There are also caps on the number of people who get a permit in any protected reef.

Now we have things like that here–Molokini, for instance–but there are still something like 30 boats a day visiting there. It’s arguable that we’ve allowed too much already because there are so many stresses on our near-shore waters and coral reefs.

MT: What are your feelings concerning the future?

PARSONS: I’ve seen real successes with our environmental partners but I’m really concerned that the vast majority of those who live and visit here don’t realize how urgent this is. In 2007, David Suzuki spoke at the MACC. With the population increasing the way it is, he said, it’s like an experiment in a petri dish. The population will continue to expand until it toxifies its environment.

I can look around and see a lot of successes. But the challenges are immense. For those who say humans are the most highly evolved species on the planet, I say, where has that gotten us?

*This story originally misidentified the school’s name.

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