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Billions of dollars of economic stimulus money is going to build bridges, improve infrastructure and help people avoid housing foreclosures. But there's also a tiny bit of that money, $167 million, to restore 50 coastal habitats in the country. Wilma Consul visited two of those sites in Hawaii.
WILMA CONSUL: On this windy morning on the shores of Maunalua Bay, a group of about 20 people hold hands in a circle to pray in Hawaiian before the day's task.
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
CONSUL: These folks are volunteers and staff from Malama Maunalua, a grassroots effort of various community groups to Malama, or care for the bay. Alyssa Miller coordinates.
Ms. ALYSSA MILLER (Coordinator, Malama Maunalua): Be sure you wear safety equipment, booties, gloves. Know where the first aid kit is - it's right over here. Drink plenty of water and go out there, have fun and be safe.
CONSUL: In the days of Hawaii's monarchy and before the islands became a state, Maunalua Bay fed nearby villages with its bounty of fishes. Now, this body of water east of Honolulu has deteriorated. Pollution and overdevelopment have played a role, but it's the invasive algae known at leather mud weed, that has caused extensive damage to the bay.
Alyssa Miller and I wade the waist-deep water. She familiarizes me with the species.
(Soundbite of splashing)
Ms. MILLER: You feel that squishy stuff under your feet?
Ms. MILLER: That's our target. It's that green invasive marine algae with a black, smelly mud under it.
CONSUL: Feels like quicksand.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONSUL: The mud weed trapped sediment in about 54 acres of the bay and smothers coral. Clearing the bay would allow for new growth of native and non-invasive weeds.
Ms. MILLER: That's (unintelligible)…
CONSUL: The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii is a partner in this $3.4 million project. Executive Director Suzanne Case says the federal stimulus funding will boost what has been small scale community work.
Ms. SUZANNE CASE (Executive Director, Nature Conservancy of Hawaii): And so you can just imagine if we're able to get 60 people out here, you know, every day pulling algae. And, you know, we'll be able to get, hopefully, we think about 22 acres over a year and a half.
CONSUL: In total, Hawaii received a little more than $6 million for coastal restoration, creating about 88 jobs for both the Oahu and the Big Island projects. The numbers may seem small, but in Hawaii, this is a big help. The unemployment rate is seven percent and more than 45,000 people are out of work. Tourism is down, Aloha Airlines shut down and many businesses have closed.
Thirty-one-year-old Andy Augustine(ph) is one of the new hires of the Kohala Watershed Restoration Project on the big island.
Mr. ANDY AUGUSTINE: You know, this is a hard time to make it right now because the economy is so low. It's super low. It's the lowest I've ever seen it since I could remember. Rice is almost $15. How is that, you know? It's bad.
CONSUL: Augustine is in charge of building a 20-mile fence to keep away the feral goats that eat up vegetation and leave the land bare. These animals, introduced by Western settlers to the islands over 200 years ago, are a big threat to Appelakana(ph) Bay near the Kohala coast. The bay is now covered in six to ten feet of mud, but it should be pristine and clear.
(Soundbite of car)
CONSUL: Augustine drove down this rocky mountain road with the project's 14 new hires.
Unidentified Woman: Akia, A-K-I-A, Akia. Incredibly wind tolerant and…
CONSUL: This crew's job is to replant native seeds on 400 acres of soil on this watershed. Tony Ka'alimai(ph) is 18 and quite psyched about this job.
Mr. TONY KA'ALIMAI: I'm just pumped, stoked. Every day more and more pumped. My friends, my family members wished they had this job. And it's a good opportunity for me.
CONSUL: At Pelekane Bay is the sacred ground of Pu'ukohola, the temple or heiau built by Hawaii's first king, Kamehameha, for uniting all the islands.
Mr. KA'ALIMAI: To be a part of restoring the native plants, putting back the rocks into the heiaus is something nobody else does on this island, really. It's…
CONSUL: Why is it that important for you?
Mr. KA'ALIMAI: I'm Hawaiian. It's my culture. My family's deep into the culture. And it's a fading culture, as you can tell on these islands. And I want to keep to strong - keep it strong at least in my family, in my blood.
CONSUL: The massive task of working the land of his paradise home can rightfully be a local boy's dream. It's a good thing for now. Hawaii's economy, like the rest of the country, will take time to recover.
For NPR News, I'm Wilma Consul.
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