- Associated Press - Friday, April 22, 2016

HONOLULU (AP) - State lawmakers have agreed to give $300,000 to figure out how to stop a fungus that has killed thousands of native ohia trees on Hawaii’s Big Island.

Also known as rapid ohia death, the disease has infected thousands of acres of native forests on the Big Island and is quickly spreading. Right now, there is no treatment to protect the trees from the disease, and no cure once they’re infected.

A recent draft of a bill being considered by lawmakers asked for $600,000 to help fund research to stop the fungus. But during a hearing Friday, lawmakers agreed to give $300,000, which could be used to hire more researchers and purchase new equipment.

Lawmakers said they’re still unclear on which agency will receive the money.

Rep. Richard Onishi, who introduced the bill, said he met with government agencies and researchers last year, who said they didn’t have enough funding for rapid ohia death research. When he introduced this year’s bill to fund research efforts, more than half of the House signed the bill.

“The more support you get from your colleagues for signing on to the bill, the greater chance it has at passing to get funding,” Onishi said.

Ohia trees cover more than 1 million acres statewide, and are considered the most important tree for keeping the state’s watersheds healthy. Watersheds provide water for drinking and irrigation worth between $4.6 and $8.5 billion dollars, according to the Oahu Invasive Species Committee.

So far, the fungus has spread to at least 35,000 acres on the Big Island, killing approximately 50 to 90 percent of the trees in the infested areas, according to the Hawaii Department of Agriculture. Right now, scientists don’t know exactly how trees are infected, but think the fungus can be spread by insect, soils and infected shoes, cars and tools.

But supporters of the bill say it’s not only important to the state’s forests, but also the Hawaiian culture as a whole. The ohia tree and its flowers have been used in traditional cultural practices like hula for generations, said Piilani Kaawaloa of the Aha Moku Advisory Committee.

“If a cure is not found, this will eventually spread to all islands,” said Kaawaloa. “All of this directly impacts our Native Hawaiian resource practices.”

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