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The Maui News

Letters To The Editor

Friday, January 10, 1997

Not a Desert

Harry Eagar's usually informative column, Off Deadline , was full of errors Dec. 31 when confronting the issue of sugar growing in Maui's Central Valley. He spreads the fallacy that Maui's central valley was "naturally" a wasteland before sugar cultivation.

The natural state of the valley was a thick dryland forest. In this forest, giant flightless ducks, nene, and other birds roamed among trees that grew nowhere else in the world. Eagar compares the Valley to the Arizona desert. Find me one town in Arizona named for flocks of geese that lived there, as Pu`u Nene is named.

The Polynesians reduced this forest to a grassland by recurrent burning as a means to cultivate grass for thatches. But it was cattle that turned the Valley into a dust bowl. Beginning in 1793, for a whole generation cattle had been let loose to run over Maui. Cattle, pigs, goats and deer turned virtually all of Hawaii's dryland forest areas into dust . A Natural History of the Hawaiian Islands; edited by E. A. Kay (available in area bookstores), gives abundant details.

Wouldn't it be wonderful to see Maui's forests restored? The State convened a conference in Hilo this week to look into just that---the potentials of agro-forestry as a replacement for sugar cane. Mauians have far more constructive approaches to ``the sugar problem'' than espousing fallacious myths about Maui's "natural" wastelands. Reforestation would bring back one of the great lost pieces of Maui's enchantments.

Dr. Lee Altenberg , Research Affiliate
Hawai`i Institute of Geophysics and Planetology
University of Hawai`i at Manoa

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OFF DEADLINE/Reporter's corner

Tuesday, December 31, 1996


Back in October, at the height of the drought, I was standing on the eighth floor of Kalana O Maui, waiting for a County Council committee to meet. Mary Evanson of the Sierra Club and I were looking out at the Central Valley, which was blanked out by a cloud of orange dust.

Evanson said it used to be like that all the time in the 1940s. Farmers have learned a lot about wind erosion since then.

Most people in Kihei, being malihini, don't realize it, but orange-out is the natural condition of the Central Valley. What makes Kihei and Maalaea habitable is sugar cane.

Earlier this year, I got a call from a woman in Lahaina who wanted to know why Pioneer Mill had to burn cane. Nothing unusual about that. What was unusual about this woman -- and I wish I knew her name but I wasn't taking notes -- was that she listened to the answer.

When I get this question, I always cite Mary Brewster. She was a whaling captain's wife who stayed on Maui during the winter of 1847. She toured the island, and coming down Haleakala Highway on horseback ran into the daily dust storm. It was so thick the riders couldn't see each other.

You can look this up in ``She Was a Sister Sailor: Mary Brewster's Whaling Journals.''

The only other person who ever listened to my answer about cane smoke was Buck Joiner. I explained that each year, HC&S imports about 50 billion gallons of water into the driest desert in the state, a desert that is naturally as dry and as bare as southern Arizona.

Buck, an engineer, wanted clarification on the numbers: ``You say billion with a `b'?''

Right, said I. That explained it for him.

As the wind arrives from the northeast, the venturi effect of being squeezed between the mountains speeds it up and sets up a swirl called the Maui Vortex. This sweeps down on Maalaea and onto Kihei. You can read about it in ``Prevailing Trade Winds,'' edited by Marie Sanderson.

I am not making this up, although I've been accused of that.

One Kihei civic leader told me I was full of it, that undeveloped parts of his town are not bare dirt. He should go look around the outskirts of the sewage treatment plant.

But I'm not saying that if sugar is shut down, Kihei will become a ghost town overnight.

Let it dry out for about 10 years, until the water deficit reaches half a trillion (trillion with a ``t,'' Buck) gallons; then let a couple of 10,000-acre grass fires (like on Molokai) strip off the plant cover. Then watch what happens when the wind blows.

Some people think that if they can shut down sugar, some other crop will take its place.

Aside from the historical fact that this hasn't happened at previously abandoned plantations, the economics of farming guarantee it won't happen in the future either.

Another friend once asked me why HC&S can't plant soybeans. ``I have a friend in Kula who grows soybeans and he can sell all he grows to the tofu factory. Why can't HC&S do that?'' she said.

I said I didn't know, but I'd think about it. Eleven years as a newspaperman in Iowa provided the raw data.

Multiply 37,000 acres of plantation by 37 bushels per acre of soybeans (an excellent yield in the Midwest). Multiply that by $7 a bushel, the best price soybeans have fetched over the last 20 years. Multiply that by two, because you could get two crops a year (maybe three on the most favored acres) on Maui.

Sum total: $20 million.

How much does HC&S make from cane and byproducts (primarily electricity)? Close to $100 million.

Profits in sugar may be thin, but that is because of tax considerations in other countries. Sugar itself returns a very high yield of value per acre.

That's because of the difference between the C-3 and C-4 pathways of carbon respiration in photosynthesis. Sugar cane (and grasses as a class) are much more efficient than other plants.

This difference was worked out in Hawaii by Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Association researchers, and it was one of the most important discoveries in plant physiology in this century, though our children aren't taught about it in school.

Anyhow, the carbon pathway has important implications for global warming, and someday maybe I'll write about them.

Meanwhile, if I owned real estate in Kihei, I'd be down on my knees every day calling down blessings on HC&S' irrigation department. And I'd just love Maui snow.

Harry Eagar covers business for The Maui News.``Off Deadline'' is a weekly column that allows staff members an opportunity to take a step back and reflect on issues of the day, or to just talk story.

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Letters To The Editor

Monday, January 6, 1997

Sugar beats dust

I too am a newcomer who selected Maui as a place to live, work and raise a family, as many others have. My newcomer status is prior to statehood. I can easily see the clouds of red orange dust that filled the air during the summer before the introduction of "drip".

Hence a tip of the hat to Harry Eagar for his Off Deadline column Dec. 31. Harry, keep working to keep sugar with its wonderful waves of green, and not 100 sections of the worst desert one could dream of. To the rest of you newcomers like me, you selected Maui for what it is, keep it for what it is, not come and decide you will change a way of life.

R. J. "Dick" Tuell

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Letters To The Editor

Friday, January 10, 1997

Wrong for a long time

I would like to comment on the Jan. 5 Letter to the Editor titled ``Decision Wrong.'' The decision by Department of Land and Natural Resources Director Mike Wilson to lease land to Ms. Annette Niles, who was running the ranch with her late father, Stephen Perreira, in Kahikinui, is not new. I was born and raised here on Maui and have complained to every governor for the past 20 years with letters and phone calls.

My protest was basically about the Perreiras using the thousands of acres from the Hawaiian Homes Commission and the land being destroyed by the cattle in the forest. The wild cattle are still in the forest damaging the fragile ecosystem, but the state doesn't care.

Let me tell you why this is being allowed to happen. Political connections, that's why. Check who were and are the Perreira-Niles family, who defends them in court, and you will see that their influence goes right back to state government. Don't be surprised, be frustrated at how your tax dollars are being spent.

Organize your friends and write letters to Mike Wilson, and if enough people write and call him, he will check with people under him who are giving him poor information or are perpetuating the ``Good Old Boy System,'' because really when you look at it, this is how the state of Hawaii is run.

Charles K. Maxwell

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