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Haleakala Background

The most isolated major island group on Earth, the Hawaiian archipelago is 2,400 miles from the nearest continent. The chain reaches from the Big Island of Hawai'i (at about the same latitude as Mexico City) to Kure Atoll 1,500 miles to the northwest, and it is still growing. For at least 81 million years, new islands have been forming as the Pacific Plate moves northwestward over a stationary plume of magma rising from a "hot spot" within the Earth's mantle. The fluid rock makes its way up through the ocean floor, and countless eruptions over hundreds of thousands of years eventually create a volcanic island. But the plate's unceasing movement slowly separates the volcano from its source, terminating its growth even as a new volcano rises from the ocean floor over the hot spot. As this happens, the forces of erosion are at work tearing down the islands and drastically changing the landscapes. The volcano that formed East Maui, part of which lies within the boundaries of the national park, last erupted about two centuries ago.

Across vast expanses of ocean, life eventually came to Maui and other islands in the form of seeds, spores, insects, spiders, birds, and small plants. They drifted on the wind, floated on ocean currents, or hitched a ride on migrating or storm driven birds. Many groups of organisms (amphibians, reptiles, social insects, and all land mammals except earlier ancestors of the monk seal and of bats) were unable to make the long journey, while some arrived but did not survive in their new home. It is estimated that an average of only one species every 35,000 years successfully colonized the islands. The survivors found themselves in a land of vast opportunity. The Hawaiian Islands are a mosaic of habitats, from rain forest to alpine, often in close proximity. In the surrounding ocean, rainfall averages 25-30 inches annually. Yet Maui and the other islands, trapping moist trade winds receive rainfall ranging from over 400 inches annually on the windward side of the mountains to less than 10 inches on the leeward side. Average temperatures range from 75°F at sea level to 40°F at the summit of the highest volcanoes. Isolated by the sea, these mountains have created an extremely diverse environment in a small area.

The colonizers gradually adapted to the environment of the islands and to life without predators and competitors of their homelands. Eventually most evolved into entirely new (and often defenseless) species found nowhere else in the world. The roughly 10,000 native species of flora and fauna of the Hawaiian Islands are thought to have evolved from about 2,000 colonizing ancestral species.

When the Polynesians navigated their way to the Hawaiian archipelago on outrigger canoes over 1500 years ago, they found islands that had been untouched by humans. The native flora and fauna of Hawaii quickly became an intrinsic part of the culture of the Hawaiians as they began life in a new place. Large human populations were sustained through careful land organization and resource sharing as the Native Hawaiians thrived in the isolated archipelago. However, this human presence, and that of the 30-40 species of food plants and animals voyagers brought with them to Hawaii, set off a chain reaction of alterations to the natural environment.

Many changes occurred after the arrival of the ancient Hawaiians, but the rate of change has accelerated dramatically just in the last few hundred years starting with contact with the Western world. Huge sailing ships brought animals and plants that had never been seen in Hawaii. Some new species such as the boar and the goat, wrought quick change on the island landscapes. Modern air travel and cargo ships bring more and more organisms to Hawaii that could never survive the accidental journey made by native plants and animals. Today more than 20 alien species are introduced to the islands every year.

The isolation which has made the plants and animals of the Hawaiian Islands unique also makes them vulnerable to the rapid changes precipitated by humans. Hawaiian species often cope poorly with habitat alterations, foreign diseases, predation, and competition from introduced species.

Further loss of Haleakala volcano's endemic plants and animals threatens not only the health of remnant Hawaiian ecosystems but endangers intricate connections with living Hawaiian culture. Active intervention by conservation managers has become essential to the survival of the natural and cultural heritage of Hawaii.

At Haleakala National Park each of these elements - geology, geography, biology and culture - come together and are interwoven to form unique and compelling landscapes and stories which require careful attention and management if they are to survive into the next generation.

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