March 04, 2009

The Kaselehlie Press

Tofol, Kosrae - A small crowd of conservation minded people gathered in the court yard outside of the Kosrae governor's office to witness a historic event. Three conservation agencies in Kosrae signed a memorandum of understanding to begin cooperative efforts to establish a conservation easement in order to preserve the Yela Ka Forest and its surrounding ecosystem in Tafunsak, Kosrae.

Olivier Wortel wrote perhaps the best description of the Yela Ka Forest. He said,

"Imagine a tropical forest on the equator that filters 300 inches of rain every year filled with towering trees that rise into the blue sky like majestic, ancient columns of life and diversity. A place that has remained undeveloped since the beginning of time, where nature and island ecology have been allowed to run their course undisturbed for generations. The forest is thick with the sounds of moving water, breezes through the canopy of leaves high above, and the hooting of fruit pigeons, and whistling song birds. It is shady and cool and wet. Ferns, lichens, and moss drip with moisture. In front of this forest lies a swath of magnificent, green mangroves where mud crabs and juvenile barracuda, groups of mullet and rabbit fish thrive, and beyond them a nursery of sea grass beds that extend for a mile out into coral-rimmed and fish-laden blue holes. Further still is a deep opening into one of the world's most colorful reefs teeming with giant parrot fish and reef sharks and silver trevally, where the nutrient rich fresh water meets the warm abundance of the sea. Now, let us get back into the forest, where shafts of tree-filtered sunshine simmer onto the myriad streams and rivers that peacefully glide through the untouched valley down from the world's lowest elevation cloud forests and watershed of the steep-ridged mountain range above, where river eels and freshwater shrimp abound, where the fl ying fox and the wild boar roam. This is not the stuff of fantasy, but of reality, or perhaps a little of both. And this place exists, in Micronesia, on the geographically isolated island of Kosrae..."

Kosrae's Governor Robert Weilbacher and Lt. Governor William O. Tosie were present at the signing ceremony along with several other notable dignitaries from the Kosrae Legislature and from local leadership. Dr. Sean Austin of The Nature Conservancy called the event an auspicious occasion and said that the rest of the FSM is looking for a workable conservation model and that the nation's eyes are on Kosrae.

The Yela Environment Landowners Authority (YELA). The Kosrae Conservation and Safety Organization (KIRMA) and the Kosrae Conservation and Safety Organization (KCSO) instead of simply having a meeting to verbally agree to work together developed a written Memorandum of Understanding laying out each agency's specific responsibilities in the project. The six page document was drafted by Kosrae's Attorney General J.D. Lee.

10 traditional landowners and their families consisting of approximately 200 people own the 84.39 acres of the Yela Ka Forest. Recognizing that even inadvertent activities in the watershed could damage the pristine stand of terminalia trees and the ecosystem that it feeds they formed YELA in 2006 in order to work together toward the goal of preserving the area. They developed a unique concept of working toward a Conservation Easement that would be used in order to protect the area while simultaneously providing an economic benefit to the landowners.

Essentially the concept is similar to that of a Utilities Easement except that the purpose of the Conservation Easement is to set aside the area for conservation. Landowners would be paid a fair market value for their land and the area would be maintained for strict conservation in perpetuity.

Dr. Tholman Alik, Executive Director of YELA said that a company from Guam had recently concluded an appraisal of the area and that YELA is waiting for the outcome of a few court cases before it can proceed with the concept. Their goal is to have the easement in place by 2010. If YELA and the other agencies are successful the Conservation Easement would be the only one of its kind in the FSM.

Dr. Austin said that the model could be used in other places in the FSM to preserve areas of biological significance. He said that the plan would be a significant contribution to the Micronesia Challenge. The Micronesia Challenge is a Micronesia wide commitment to preserve 20% of the forests and 30% of the reefs in Micronesia by 2020.

The Yela watershed is the largest and perhaps the most valuable intact landscape remaining in Kosrae. Left undisturbed, it will continue to provide a supply of firewood from its mangrove forest and fish from its offshore waters. It will continue to provide habitat for the endangered Micronesian pigeon which has few other refuges on the island. With the largest remaining stand of Terminalia carolinensis (locally known as Ka) in the world, the natural beauty of a wild and undisturbed wetland will attract tourists, even if seeing it requires hiking for some distance from the ends of the existing roads.

Only Kosrae has large stands of Ka remaining, and the Ka forest in Yela is the largest and least disturbed in the world. Ka trees dominate the vegetation because of the characteristic water quality of the swamp and the length of time that it is flooded. The mangrove forest that borders the Yela Ka swamp is also relatively undisturbed.

A circumferential road, a major infrastructure development by the State of Kosrae is being proposed and engineered to go through the Conservation Areas. This proposed circumferential road will be constructed through, across, or around the Conservation Areas. The completion of this circumferential road has been halted because YELA is trying to protect the Yela Ka Forest and its ecological wealth from all potentially harmful activities.

A report written by Katie Friday of the Institute of Pacific Island Forestry said that road could be potentially built in the area but designers would have to be extraordinarily careful in the design of it to be certain that its presence wouldn't significantly alter the delicate ecosystem. Further, she said in her report, unless the road was meticulously maintained all of the advance planning in the world would not protect the ecosystem for the future. She was not willing to make any recommendations on road until a detailed environmental impact study is done. So far no environmental impact study has been performed in the area although significant scientific study has been conducted there. Not enough information is on hand to determine what effect a road in the area would have.

Under the Memorandum of Understanding signed on Friday YELA would be the grantor of the Conservation Easement of behalf of the title owners and beneficiaries.

KCSO would be the grantee of the Conservation Easement. KCSO is a non-governmental agency under the guidance of a Board of Directors. KCSO would hold and manage the easement and maintain certain rights to enforce the terms and conditions of the Conservation Easement.

KIRMA is a semi-autonomous agency of the Kosrae State government with duties equal to the Environmental Protection Agencies of the other states of the FSM. It's mandate is to "Protect the environment, human health, welfare and safety, to abate, control and prevent pollution or contamination of air, land and water in accordance with Chapter 4 of Title 7 of the Kosrae State Code and commission regulations by balancing the needs of economic and social development with those of environmental quality, and to ensure that economic and social development in Kosrae State is environmentally sustainable, and preserve the State's forests and wildlife and regulate activities that affect them."

KIRMA would be a party to the Conservation Easement, charged with the duty to enforce compliance with the Conservation Easement under special circumstances described in the terms and conditions of the Conservation Easement.

The MOU was signed on behalf of YELA by it Executive Director Dr. Tholman Alik, on behalf of KIRMA by its Program Director Mr. Robert H. Jackson, and on behalf of KCSO by Administrative Officer Ms. Lelean W. Olter. YELA Project Manager William William was the Master of Ceremonies for the signing ceremony.

The activities of the conservation groups are funded in part by support from the Micronesian Conservation Trust, Micronesian Small Grant Program of NZAID and UNDP, the German Life Web, and the European Union.