The state is bringing back a popular volunteer program in which people help educate visitors and residents about South Maui's fragile and almost pristine Ahihi-Kinau Natural Area Reserve, which was established in 1973.
The reserve encompasses around 2,000 acres and includes ocean and land areas. It contains coral reefs, unique anchialine pools, native shrub land and lava flows.
"I can't overstate how important they (the volunteers) are," said Sarah Bott, the volunteer coordinator for the reserve.
Top photo: Kipahulu resident Christie Sorochan strums on her banjo while visiting the Ahihi-Kinau Natural Area Reserve last weekend. The state Board of Land and Natural Resources last month approved a management plan for the reserve that state officials say will preserve, protect and enhance the biological and cultural resources of the reserve for current and future generations. Visitors brought to the reserve by guidebooks were damaging natural areas such as lava flows and fragile ocean pools.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
Now, there are four trained volunteers, also known as interpretive guides, but Bott said officials want to have around 40 volunteers. They can help make sure snorkelers stay off the reef and out of restricted areas as well as help people best enjoy the reserve.
Community volunteers who had been providing visitor education were dismissed several years ago so state employees who had been overseeing them could concentrate on drafting a management plan for the area, state officials said previously.
Reinstating the volunteer program is just one of a dozen top actions prioritized in an implementation plan that is included in a long-awaited draft management plan that was approved by the state Board of Land and Natural Resources on Oct. 12.
"We're really excited that the plan is done. . . . I know our constituents really wanted to get it done, and it's something the community had a lot of input in it. . . . The reserve is in a better place than it has been in years past," said Scott Fretz, district manager for the Division of Forestry and Wildlife, Maui Branch.
Some of the plan's top priorities include hiring a full-time reserve manager, which has already been done with the hiring of Dave Quisenberry; improving and maintaining on-site facilities; managing visitors and access points; and deterring and removing hoofed animals from the reserve.
Fretz said some actions are prioritized, but there is no deadline to implement the whole plan, although he said the state aims to have the plan in effect for the next 10 to 15 years.
Even with the plan in place, the state will continue to keep certain parts of the reserve closed.
For now, the current open areas include popular swimming, snorkeling and surfing spots in the northern end of the reserve such as Waiala Cove and Kanahena Cove, also known as "Dumps."
"We like to have people be able to use the reserve, but at this time we need to have the areas closed to protect those resources that were being heavily damaged," Fretz said.
On Aug. 1, 2008, a portion of the reserve was closed to the public to allow for studies and for the state to work on the draft management plan. The closure came after years of escalating conflicts over human use. Large numbers of visitors had been hiking across the lava flows in Ahihi-Kinau in search of coves that had been publicized in guidebooks as snorkel spots such as "Fishbowl" and "Aquarium."
The DLNR will revisit the issue in 2014, Fretz said.
Quisenberry said some other actions already taken from the plan include improving an office trailer at the reserve that now has electricity, air conditioning and landline telephone service. He said once Internet service is installed, his and the volunteer coordinator offices will be based at the reserve.
Quisenberry said he hopes to have two staff members back "on the ground" at the reserve by Dec. 1.
Staffing at the reserve has dwindled over the years, with state officials saying some left for personal reasons and there had been a "lack of capacity to maintain that level of funding and staffing."
According to the implementation plan, other projects that are among the priority measures include maximizing the efficiency of the parking in the Kanahena parking area by designating lot stalls; the design and implementation of a ranger-guided educational walk program in the restricted access area; and work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to initiate and oversee surveys to determine the extent of munitions debris in the reserve and oversee their work in order to minimize impacts to the reserve resources.
In order to complete the projects, Fretz said the state will have to seek outside grants as well as form partnerships.
Quisenberry said the state is working with The Nature Conservancy to look for funding opportunities via grants for marine monitoring.
He added that some residents in the area who are on the reserve's advisory group assist the state in reporting violations to the staff and the state DLNR's Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement. The residents provide information to visitors unaware about the posted rules.
In addition, Quisenberry said Makena Stables is contracted to open and close the gate at the Kanahena parking area.
"Both of these things are huge in helping us manage the reserve. We really appreciate their kokua," Quisenberry said.
For an overview of the plan, go online to hawaii.gov/dlnr/dofaw/nars/reserves/maui/ahihi-kinau-management-plan-and-working-group.
To volunteer at the reserve, contact Bott at Sarah.V.Bott@hawaii.gov or call 264-7891.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.