Bill would significantly boost funding to battle ohia disease
A federal bill that would more than double the state’s annual funding for rapid ohia death abatement has exciting implications, say state researchers.
U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, on Wednesday introduced The Continued Rapid Ohia Death Response Act of 2022, which would authorize $55 million in federal funding over 11 years to state and federal agencies combating ROD in Hawaii.
“Ohia trees are Hawaii’s most abundant native tree, making up nearly 80% of our native forests,” Hirono said in a statement. “But over the last decade, rapid ohia death has decimated Hawaii’s ohia population, presenting an existential threat to our environment and the species’ future. As a key component of our watersheds, ohia play an important role in protecting our native ecosystems and preventing erosion and flooding.”
Rob Hauff, state protection forester for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife, said the state’s ROD programs are typically allocated about $1.5 million to $2 million per year.
“So, this is a big increase for us, if it passes,” Hauff said.
Hauff said the funding could be used for research programs such as a long-term project to develop a species of ohia that is resistant to ceratocystis, the fungus that causes ROD. This project would take time — Hauff said such genetic research projects can take 10 to 20 years to produce a viable specimen — but he added that initial surveys have shown signs of genetic variation among seedlings.
Other programs could include more thorough surveys of the disease throughout the state and programs to control ungulate populations, which are hypothesized to help spread the fungus. Hauff said incidences of the disease are more frequent in areas where hooved animals are more populous.
“The disease requires a wound in the tree,” Hauff said. “So, when an animal that scrapes off the bark, or digs around in the roots, it can open it up to infection. That’s what we think the connection is.”
Another possible research avenue could be how to control the ambrosia beetle, an invasive insect that bores into the wood of ohia trees, Hauff said. When they bore into infected trees, the frass — sawdust and droppings — left behind can contain spores that can be carried by the wind to other susceptible trees.
Hauff said ROD has killed more than a million ohia trees, and that more cases of the disease are being reported in areas where it was previously absent, particularly on the Big Island.
“This is an exciting bill,” Hauff said. “This is an issue we’re going to have to deal with for decades, so we need the resources now.”
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