The case of the strawberry guava is hardly the first time conservationists have run into trouble with members of Hawaii’s eating public. There’s also been some pushback against efforts to control the ivy gourd, a plant that’s used in Asian cuisine and is listed as a state noxious weed. Then there’s the rose apple, which spread throughout forests unchecked for decades, feeding hikers and feral pigs, until it was destroyed by an invasive rust fungus. Though some botanists were secretly happy the plant was removed, hunters who valued the fruit because it fed the pigs speculated that conservationists introduced the fungus on purpose. (Chimera says that conservationists wouldn’t have been allowed to take such drastic measures because the use of biocontrols is so thoroughly tested and regulated.)
The first thing most Hawaii residents think of when they hear the word “biocontrol” actually is a much older attempt at conservation on the islands: European plantation owners’ botched 1883 effort to control the rat population by importing mongooses. The owners didn’t realize that mongooses are diurnal, while rats are nocturnal, so instead of the one hunting the other, both ended up preying on endangered birds.
Today, farmers worry that the strawberry guava interventions will be similarly rash. There have been public hearings to discuss the use of the Brazilian scale, and conservationists have worked to include outreach in most of their projects. But the farmers still want to be consulted before any biocontrol measures move forward. The scientists are committed to conducting studies according to their own research, not what the farmers say.
Beyond invasive plants, scientists and citizens on the islands have been debating the control of feral animals like sheep, deer, wild cattle, and pigs for decades. The pigs, for instance, were introduced by Polynesian travelers who canoed to Hawaii from other islands in the Pacific. They were domesticated and pork was highly valued in celebrations like luaus. But now the pigs are feral, and their rooting causes native plant damage, increases the spread of invasive plants, and results in harmful erosion. Most protected forests are fenced off to keep the animals from trampling through the land, but agencies have also used snares to trap and kill the animals, which is often an unpopular measure.
“You’re always going to get somebody that says, ‘No, my value is just as important as your value, my freedom to grow whatever I want trumps anything else,’” Chimera said. “It’s very challenging.”
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Conservation can be seen as a stubborn, too, of course. To attempt to preserve something in the face of extinction similarly privileges that thing and the effort to conserve it over any opposing interests. What landscape are scientists trying to preserve in Hawaii—the environment as it was before Europeans arrived? Before the first humans arrived? Who ultimately benefits? Conflicts like this are playing out around the country. Consider the 41-day armed occupation of Malheur Wildlife Refuge earlier this year by ranchers who disliked the government’s management of federal land; the ranchers wanted to run their businesses and graze their cattle how they please, but the federal government, which owns 47 percent of all land in the West, parcels it out. Then there’s the furor over oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Oil companies wanted to drill for the billions of barrel of oil estimated to lie beneath the region, but the Federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management decided the risk of spills was too great. Ultimately, President Obama effectively banned oil exploration on 22 million acres of federal lands and waters in Alaska.