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After 30 years of speaking up for native plants, botanist Patti Welton retires from Haleakalā

Patti Welton in Kīpahulu Valley at Haleakalā National Park in 1993.
National Park Service
Patti Welton in Kīpahulu Valley at Haleakalā National Park in 1993.

Patti Welton had dreamed of a career in conservation since she was in high school, but she never expected that she would end up as a botanist for the Haleakalā National Park on Maui. She just retired after 30 years with the park, and in that time, she’s watched both the environment and the conservation movement change.

The Conversation spoke with Welton about where Hawaiʻi needs to take action to protect the ecosystem. During her career, Welton spearheaded the restoration of koa forest in Kaupō Gap. To learn more about the endangered plants that Welton has worked with, click here.

Interview Highlights

On how she first became interested in environmental conservation

Well, I grew up north of Los Angeles in a little town called Calabasas — it's not so little anymore. It's home to many of the rich and famous. And at the time, we had horses, and I would come home from school and throw a rope over my horse and ride around in the oak woodlands. And I fell in love with the environment. And then when I was in high school, I had a friend who was a falconer. And so we spent a lot of time in those woodlands and flying his hawks and falcons and they were bulldozing my oak woodlands, to build tennis courts and riding horses, or, you know, rings for the people moving out of LA. I think that's why I chose to study environmental biology — and then it led to a career in conservation.

On the environment, climate change and conservation efforts over the last 30 years

Most notably just before I left, the pukiawe — which is a very hardy bush that's mostly throughout the crater and the shrubland — is beginning to have a die-back problem. In 2011, we noticed it in the front country above the headquarters where the visitor center is. And actually Lloyd Loope came up and was also very concerned about it. And it was more at the 8,200 elevation. And it was on the northwest slope, which is drier because the trade winds come in on the northeast slope. So we were noticing that the inversion layer was changing. And this pukiawe was being more susceptible in the afternoon harsh sunlight, whereas before it usually had a lot of inversion moisture. And just before I retired from the park, I went through the crater and noticed this phenomenon happening again. It apparently happened on Mauna Kea in the 1990s and papers suggest that the pukiawe didn't really recover all that well. And what I noticed from the 2011 event, the pukiawe didn't really recover. So that I think is a very telling indicator that the climate is really changing because it's really up above the inversion layer. So it's getting a lot more of the solar radiation. The area where we first noticed it in 2011 had a lot of rejuvenation, or recruitment from other shrublands, species such as the ʻaʻaliʻi and the māmane. So that was kind of exciting to see that there could be a native replacement of what was more or less the dominant shrub. But we never really had the opportunity at the time to set up any plots and monitor it to get any real indication whether that is going to be a succession. There's really not a lot the park can do to manage it other than just documenting and watching what happens for the future.

Patti Welton said working at Haleakalā National Park taught her “resilience and hope.” To wrap up her career, she led a hike for park staff and passed down her knowledge of the species that call Haleakalā home.
Courtesy National Park Service
Patti Welton said working at Haleakalā National Park taught her “resilience and hope.” To wrap up her career, she led a hike for park staff and passed down her knowledge of the species that call Haleakalā home.

On the role of the National Park Service in conservation

I can't really speak for the whole national park system. I know they do have climate change biologists now that were trying to plan meetings before I retired — and I kind of regret that I didn't get an opportunity to participate in them. The National Park Service at Haleakalā is very concerned about climate change. It's mostly at this point, focusing on the forest birds, which is also a very important part of the ecosystem. I think regretfully maybe that some of the lower elevation plants are not being put into the priority ranking as much as they could be. But they intend to try to manage and set priorities in the changing climate.

We have a new chief of resources at Haleakalā, and he is intended to bring in these climate change biologists and review priorities — and try to figure out, I don't think there's any plan at this point, about what is going to be a priority, yet, but they are very aware. I think the time of denying it is over. Right now we're in a drought where we live in Kula. And we went down to the beach yesterday, and it was sort of raining at Baldwin, but it wasn't coming up as far as we are. So we've been at this house for 20 years and I think this is probably the driest that I've seen it.

On the challenges that Hawaiʻi faces in preserving our ecosystems

My initial interview at University of Hawaiʻi back in 1988 with Smith, he's the one who said there were no jobs in botany — that has really changed over the years. There's a lot more partnerships, watershed partnerships that are all on the ground, looking at what is happening. I think that's really a positive thing to have people on the ground. I think the challenge for Haleakalā is to get people out of the office, into the backcountry and be on the ground to witness what is happening. I think towards the end of my career, some of the frustration was that there was not enough people on the ground. I think that's really the thing that really needs to happen is that people really need to be able to figure out how to get in and document, and monitor, and understand what is happening. Fortunately, there actually is a program at the Park Service — Inventory and Monitoring Program — that began in 2012. And then every five years they do plots. So they did again in 2016/2017. And they got delayed to do the plots in 2022 because of the pandemic, but they're planning to get back in and do a lot of plots in 2023. So at least there is sort of a baseline because in 2012, things were pretty — the resources were in good shape. And then by 2017, they started to have a lot of invasives and invasive feral animals and the park really wasn't able to get a good handle on that. So I think 2023 is going to really open up people's eyes.

Everybody has a stake in this manner that we're all involved in this climate change. And it's not about your career. It's about the resources involved because I do think that Hawaiʻi has a unique community. People are aware of how the environment is. So I could only just hope that we can do things, and I'm not sure how yet I've only been retired three weeks, but how to continue to be involved in conservation.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Oct. 14, 2021.

Savannah Harriman-Pote is the energy and climate change reporter. She is also the lead producer of HPR's "This Is Our Hawaiʻi" podcast. Contact her at sharrimanpote@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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