POHAKULOA TRAINING AREA, Hawaii — While COVID-19 concerns have caused Army and Marine leaders to cancel training at this Premier Training Center in the Pacific, here, Hawaii Island residents are now asking “What is actually going on at PTA? Is the annual Earth Day event, coined ‘Experience PTA Day,’ going to be held?”
Unfortunately, the normally bustling-with-activity base remains mostly quiet, and the open house Earth Day event, drawing nearly one-thousand, is postponed. Yet, behind the scenes of normal training and operations at PTA and Schofield Barracks on Oahu are extremely savvy scientists, such as horticulturists, botanists and biologists who are doing groundbreaking work in order to bring native Hawaiian plants back from the brink of extinction.
This incredible, innovative work continues despite the ongoing pandemic.
One tale of survival involves a partnership of scientists reshaping the future for an endangered plant in the cucumber and squash family, the ‘Ānunu or Sicyos macrophyllus.
Four years ago, the ‘Ānunu vine blinked out at Pohakuloa. Before this occurred, the PTA Natural Resources team from Colorado State University collected valuable fruit and put them in storage. The PTA team was concerned that the on-hand stock of approximately 400 seeds might be reaching the end of its viability. They requested assistance from their counterpart Natural Resources program on Oahu, and staff from the Lyon Arboretum helped process and germinate some of this valuable collection.
Seeds were delivered to the Army’s seed lab at Schofield Barracks and the Lyon Arboretum in early March.
The University of Hawaii’s Lyon Arboretum specializes in cultivating native Hawaiian plants in "micropropagation," meaning in a test tube or a tub under sterile conditions. Cindy Yamamoto, a micropropagation laboratory manager with the Hawaiian Rare Plant Program with the Lyon Arboretum-University of Hawaii, is part of a team that serves as the intensive care unit for endangered and threatened endemic plants in Hawaii. For Yamamoto, the work of her team remains vital to Hawaii. The reason is because there are many obstacles that these plants need to overcome (urban sprawl, construction, natural disasters and invasive plants and animals) in order to survive. They can use all the help they can get. Ungulates (e.g., goats, pigs, sheep, etc.) digging up or eating plants, rats eating their seeds or fruits, natural disasters like fire and flooding, and human encroachment on their natural habitat are just some of these obstacles.
“Although Hawaii has been called the Endangered Species Capitol of the World, we do have a very dedicated and cooperative network of conservationists that strive to work together and who willingly share their knowledge and expertise to try to save as many of these endangered endemic species, such as Sicyos macrophyllus, as they can,” she explained.
“What's so amazing is, when we receive plant material from plants that are either on the brink of extinction, or very close, and we can use micropropagation to help keep these plants from going extinct, it is very rewarding,” Yamamoto explained when asked about why she loves her work.
Tim Chambers manages the Army’s seed lab, which happens to be the only seed lab within all of the Department of Defense. He is employed by the University of Hawaii via a cooperative agreement with the Army to run the lab at Schofield Barracks. Within this lab, there are approximately 12 million seeds stored for safekeeping; most of these seeds represent populations of critically endangered plants from Oahu. Chambers is a plant and seed specialist who is completely devoted to his important role in Hawaiian conservation. These back-up collections are critical insurance policies for the Army so that realistic training can occur within Hawaii’s sensitive environment.
The conservation partners from both Oahu and Hawaii Island take normal gardening and planting to a molecular level.
For example, their standard procedure is to take multiple approaches to germinate a seed, and this was applied to the Sicyos macrophyllus collection. In a recent successful germination, the team tested three methods. First, they germinated the fruit whole, typical of most homeowners and novel gardeners. Second, they cracked open the outer fruit shell partially exposing the seed, and finally, they removed the seed completely from the shell — which proved to be the most successful technique.
An obvious question arose, where do they go next and what is on the horizon?
“We are truly at the initial stages of plant life and there is a long road ahead for sure,” explained Chambers. “Keep in mind we are at the test tube level, so there are so many factors and variables that go into having a plant like Sicyos macrophyllus remain viable and move to a potted plant in a mist house and then eventually an outplanting.”
Lena Schnell, the senior program manager at Pohakuloa Training Area under the Center of Environmental Management of Military Lands (under the cooperative agreement with Colorado State University) will oversee the future of the Sicyos macrophyllus at PTA.
“The more we learn about growing the seeds, the better opportunities the conservation community has to reintroduce enough plants into suitable habitats to reduce the risk of extinction for Sicyos macrophyllus,“ Schnell explained. “We don't know a lot about these seeds like how long are they viable or what conditions do they need to germinate. The fact that seeds from 2016 were successfully germinated is a significant accomplishment and brings hope for managing this critically rare species,” she continued.
Commonly referred to as “cooperators” due to the cooperative agreements, the array of U.S. Army employees at PTA and on Oahu originate from various backgrounds. Under various federal mandates, policies and laws, the U.S. military is required to properly manage the natural and cultural resources on base. This function means, for example, the U.S. Army manages threatened or endangered plants and animals on PTA, spanning more than 130,000 acres. The preferred choice to fulfill these responsibilities are esteemed academic institutions from across the country who employ the experts — botanists, biologists, anthropologists and archeologists, to name a few.
Oahu’s natural resource manager at U.S. Army Hawaii is Kapua Kawelo. She oversees the transfer of plants to PTA — still being worked out given travel restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. She has worked in this cooperative arena for a long time and has seen the benefits of cooperative agreements.
“Partnerships always bring new perspectives and techniques, which, in my experience, increases the long term success of the work at hand,” explained Kawelo. “I am excited for future partnerships, such as this, to further our efforts in plant conservation at Pohakuloa. This success brings hope for the successful restoration of this population of endangered plants,” she said.
The successful germination of Sicyos macrophyllus in the month of April could not have been more coincidental with Earth Day on April 22. Admittedly, the successful future of Sicyos macrophyllus is dependent on so many variables. There is no good current forecast, though environmentalists here and on Oahu are very optimistic. There is one common theme that breeds enthusiasm across the natural resource team — hope!