James Leary Battles Miconia With a Paintball Gun While the State of Hawaii Sort Of Opens Old Haleakala Trail

Think about it: you go up in a helicopter, fly over some of the most beautiful and remote forests on Maui, hover within 100 feet of the green, then pick up a paintball gun loaded with herbicide and start blasting away at invasive species.

For the last two years, Dr. James Leary of the University of Hawaii has done exactly that. He says he’s gone out on 10 or so “missions” to take out “high value targets”–so far, just miconia plants, highly invasive plants from Central and South America that can form an umbrella over watersheds and kill off native species. He says the best “platform” for the gun–what he refers to as “herbicide ballistic technology” (HBT)–is the helicopter.

“It allows real-time target elimination during surveillance operations,” Leary said, talking more like a Navy SEAL sniper than a scientist. “It’s effectively cut our helicopter time in half. This technology comes from Hawaii and it really is made for Hawaii. The EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] has reviewed it, but it only exists in Hawaii.”

The HBT is really quite simple: a paintball gun is loaded with herbicide instead of paint. Leary says his helicopter pilots (“some of the best in the world”) are so good they can hover over a cliff side or watershed within 100 feet of an invasive plant, which is within the gun’s effective range. Using the gun and helicopter allows Leary to “eliminate” the target plant without causing collateral damage to native plants growing nearby. Leary half-jokingly calls his missions “weedectomies.”

Military sniper talk aside, a remarkable three-minute gun-camera video Leary shared of a recent mission has all the hallmarks of old Vietnam war footage (minus the napalming of people, of course): emerald green jungle growth, the lazy spin of the helicopter blades’ shadows on the ground, even the clack-clack-clack-clack of the gun. But through it all, Leary is clearly precise, laying down herbicide “bullets” on individual plants.

“I appreciate people’s concerns about herbicides,” Leary said. “We’re trying to be as discreet, surgical, as we can.”

So far Leary’s only been shooting at miconia, but he’s been working closely with the Maui Invasive Species Committee (MISC), training new shooters, if you will, and wants to take on pampas grass next.

“It’s great,” said Teya Penniman, MISC’s manager. “You can use it in areas that are otherwise hard to reach. Penniman added that her group put Leary’s technology on display for state officials as part of the Hawaii Invasive Species Committee‘s first ever neighbor island meeting on Maui on May 8, though she laughingly refused to say how the officials performed in the test firings.

As for Leary, he freely admitted that his job is a lot of fun, but it’s also still a lot of work.
“We’re definitely flying into some of the most beautiful forests on Maui,” he said. “But the fun factor can work against us. We’re not out there shooting plants for the thrill of it.”

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During a week when I’ve got a screed against the County of Maui footing the bill for the Maui Visitors Bureau (see page 10), I thought it fascinating that the April 2012 issue of Outside magazine happened to land in my mailbox. Promoting its annual Travel Awards on the cover, the magazine goes on to list myriad destinations around world that offer wonders for adventurers and tourists alike. But those at the MVB probably don’t like the issue, because our own Valley Isle didn’t make the cut.

Best Islands? That honor went to the Seychelles, which offer “the illusion of a private kingdom,” “some of the greatest marine biodiversity on earth” and a hotel on a “secluded beach” with rooms as low as $88 a night.

Hawaii did make the cut with Best Beach, but only on Kauai (Mahaulepu Beach): “There are plenty of Hawaiian beaches well suited to sipping mai tais, surfing, and admiring a parade of imaginative swimwear,” Stephanie Pearson and Kate Siber wrote. “Mahaulepu is not one of them.”

Turns out the folks at Outside would rather enjoy a beach flanked by ancient burial sites, endangered monk seals and a two-mile distance to the nearest resort than one fronting a paved beach path and shops selling Coach purses. Go figure.

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And now here’s some slightly good news for fans of the old Haleakala Trail, that ancient path leading from Makawao to the dormant volcano’s summit. Located on Haleakala Ranch land, the trail’s been closed for years. Then on May 11, the state Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) voted to allow “limited” public access to the trail, which is itself apparently owned by the State of Hawaii.

The key word here is “limited.” The board approved the scheduling of at least two public hikes per year “on such dates and during such times as the [Haleakala Ranch] shall determine in coordination with [Department of Land and Natural Resources].”

If that seems, well, completely unsatisfactory, you’re not alone. “In essence, DLNR’s Request is asking BLNR to abdicate its statutory duties and violate its own rules, including asking BLNR to put the rights of HRC ahead of the public’s rights–something that has already been occurring for at least a decade,” said Tom Pierce, a Makawao-based attorney for Public Access Trails Hawaii (PATH), a group that wants a lot more than two hikes on the trail per year, in written comments to the BLNR.

According to PATH, the trail is historic and still in existence. In fact, many of the old posts marking the trail are still pointing skyward.

“The trail has shown up on very good government survey maps since the 1880s,” states PATH in its comments to the BLNR. “The trail was dramatically improved at great cost by the Territory of Hawaii in 1905, at which time it was not only surveyed but also its position carefully established on the ground with rock cairns and finger posts, many of which remain fully visible on the ground today, as well as portions of the trail, which may be seen from indentations in the ground.”
The May 11 BLNR decision notwithstanding, PATH is continuing in its quest to open the trail completely. They’re currently suing the state and Haleakala Ranch, and say their case is scheduled to come up in January 2013.

“On Maui, the state is closing many more trails than it is opening,” PATH president David Brown said in a May 13 statement. “This case is about requiring BLNR to follow its legislative mandate to protect public lands, and obtaining respect from private landowners who deny public access over clearly public trails.”