A new disease that has already killed hundreds of thousands of native ‘ōhi‘a trees in Hawai‘i this past year has prompted the organization of an interagency response to battle the threat.
The disease, known as Rapid ‘Ōhi‘a Death, or ‘Ōhi‘a Wilt is a deadly fungus that began attacking ʻōhiʻa trees in East Hawaiʻi on the Big Island.
A quarantine on the intrastate movement of ‘Ōhi‘a was implemented four months ago, and an interim rule restricting the movement of soil from Hawaiʻi Island begins in January.
Officials with the State Department of Land and Natural Resources say state and federal agencies are now combining efforts to try and find answers and potential treatments, as well as inform and educate the public about the disease.
DLNR officials have called ‘ōhi‘a trees “the backbone of Hawaiʻi’s native forests and watersheds.”
In a press release statement issued today, Dr. J.B. Friday of the University of Hawaiʻi Cooperative Extension Service explains, “ROD is caused by a fungus called Ceratocystis fimbriata. This disease is new to Hawaiʻi and the strain of fungus infecting ‘ōhi‘a, has never been described before. While apparently only impacting Big Island forests currently, this has the potential of spreading statewide, so it’s critically important we do everything to stop it.”
Scientists say new information is being uncovered nearly on a weekly basis.
DLNR Chair Suzanne Case said ‘ōhi‘a trees cover more than one million acres statewide and is widely considered “the most important forest tree in Hawai‘i.”
“They are so important for protecting our forest watersheds that it’s necessary our approach to combating this disease involves the highest levels of government and includes non-government agencies and private partners that can provide additional resources and expertise,” said Case in a statement.
HDOA Chair Scott Enright said that while the disease is widespread on Hawaiʻi Island, the threat should be considered a statewide issue.
The quarantine rules, along with symptoms of the disease and five things everyone can do to prevent Rapid ‘Ōhi‘a Death spread are outlined in a brochure, video, and on a website  and Facebook page established to raise awareness and provide the latest information.
State officials say ‘ōhi‘a is widely used in lei for events like the Merry Monarch Festival. Partner agencies plan to release follow-up information on traditional and cultural uses of ‘ōhi‘a, and how people can use lehua without spreading Rapid ‘Ōhi‘a Death.
Dr. Flint Hughes of the USDA Forest Service concluded, “With the help from nurseries, anyone traveling in, working in, or harvesting in the forest and people who transport ‘ōhi‘a, we stand a chance of stopping Rapid‘Ōhi‘a Death in its tracks. Without this concerted, interagency effort, the impacts could be devastating.”