It started simply enough: transform an overgrown wetland into a habitat for endangered water birds. But after three years of seeking approval from federal, state and county officials – and enduring objections from the community over his plans – Kip Dunbar is anxious to begin work.
Dunbar plans to restore about an acre of deteriorated wetland on the east end, skimming the water’s surface down 18 inches to remove invasive vegetation and building a fence around the perimeter to keep out predators.
“Slowly but surely this wetland has narrowed and narrowed,” Dunbar said. “Once you take the vegetation out of there and it stops transpiring all the water, it’ll be a wetland again.”
Last week, Dunbar received permission from the Molokai Planning Commission (MoPC) to begin work, the last in a series of regulatory hurtles. The project has already been signed off on by the Army Corp of Engineers, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the state Historic Preservation Committee.
Arleone Dibben-Young, a local water bird researcher, created a similar wetland on her property near Kawela 10 years ago, which is now home to Bristle-thighed curlews and endangered Hawaiian Stilts and Coots. Dibben-Young testified to MoPC in support of Dunbar’s project.
“We need more habitats like this,” she said after the meeting. “We need more people to do this in their own backyards.”
This would be a permanent wetland, she added, as opposed to the coastal wetlands that dry up every summer. “The birds need more wetlands like this.”
But Dunbar’s application was not without protest. It was unclear at the meeting whether the area in question is a naturally-created wetland or an inland fishpond (it does not feed into the ocean). Some community members objected to his plans to use machines to clear the land.
“You don’t put machines in the fishpond,” said Judy Caparida. “If you’re going to use something, use your hands.”
Leimana Naki, the caretaker of the Kahinapohaku Fishpond on the east end, also testified against Dunbar’s application. He said he plans to file a “stop work order” that would require Dunbar to clear the land by hand and is looking for attorney specializing in Native Hawaiian affairs to file his complaint.
“[Dunbar] got the green light, but not without a fight,” he said.
Naki added he is concerned that the wetland may be an ancient burial ground and Dunbar’s work would disturb remains.
Dunbar said after the meeting that clearing the land by hand is not feasible.
“I’d be happy not to use a machine if I had 100 people at my disposal [to work],” he said.
He hopes to have the project complete within a year, though work will be weather-dependant.