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Okinawa's rain forests and endangered species under threat

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1999-05-22

The northern forests of Okinawa, known locally as "Yambaru," contain some of the rarest species of plants, animals, and insects in the world. Subtropical rain forests also exist within Yambaru and play an important role in the watershed ecosystem. The most pristine areas of these rain forests are found within the Northern Training Area (NTA), which the United States military uses for jungle warfare training.

Since the return of Okinawa Prefecture to Japan in 1972, the environment of northern Okinawan has been gradually suffering from the effects of development and logging at the hands of the Japanese government, while much of the NTA has managed to remain in its natural state because of low-impact use by the United States military. These last remaining sections of old forest growth, located inside the 19,638 acres of the NTA, are now being threatened because of conditions set down by the Special Action Committee on Okinawa (SACO) agreement, which calls for the return of the northern half of the NTA to Okinawa Prefecture within the next two years. Under the SACO agreement, seven helicopter landing pads within the region to be returned will need to be moved to a new location. The proposed sites for the landing zones are located in some of the oldest subtropical rain forests on Okinawa. A joint research team of scientists from Okinawa and Hawaii, who have been conducting a biological survey within the NTA under the direction of Dr. Chris White from the U.S. Marine Corps Environmental Division, have recorded a total of 1313 species within the newly proposed landing zones. The survey also concludes that out of the 66 known endemic species to Yambaru, 22 of these exist within the proposed site. There have also been 126 endangered species recorded in the proposed landing zone area, making it an especially important habitat for endangered wildlife. Some of the more well known species include: Pryors Woodpecker (Sapheopipo noguchii ), Yambaru Kuina (Rallus okinawae ), and the Yambaru long-armed Scarab Beetle (Cheirotonus jambar ).

Dr. Osamu Iwahashi of the University of the Ryukyus is one of the main researchers involved in the biological survey. He is worried that the proposed construction of the seven new helicopter landing pads, each 75 meters in diameter, together with the construction of access roads, will severely damage the environment. "The access roads would cause fragmentation within the rain forest ecosystem. There would also be an increase in soil erosion; many species in the watershed can not survive even under the slightest change in water quality," he explained. Iwahashi stated that because Okinawa Prefecture contains the only islands in the world where subtropical rain forests exist, the importance of protecting the area should be a priority. Although the Defense Facilities Administration Agency has contracted a private company to conduct an environmental impact assessment, Iwahashi feels the findings of the biological survey are substantial evidence to stop the proposed plans. He also mentioned that under any other circumstances the number of endangered species found within the area alone would be more than enough data to force a relocation of the proposed site for the new helicopter landing zone.

Environmentalists are also concerned over plans for logging and dam construction within the section of land scheduled for return to Okinawa. The area will fall under the control of the National Forestry Ministry and the Northern Dams Office. There are many pro-environment activists who fear that the forests will be cut and developed for tourism. Dr. Ken Kaneshiro Ph.D., a biologist from the University of Hawaii's Center for Conservation Research and Training who has been working together with Iwahashi, is concerned over the possible loss of many endangered species and environmental damage to the Yambaru watershed. "Yambaru contains an important watershed for the entire island of Okinawa. If the rain forest eco-system is destroyed, there will be long-term impacts on the entire island," he said in reference to Okinawa's water supply. "There is a very high concentration of endangered species that are endemic to the area and are very important to the water-shed eco-system. The species living within the watershed eco-system form a community, so any impact would affect not just one species but the entire community."

Kaneshiro said that he would like to see the area under the control of the Japanese Environmental Protection Division, and he believes the creation of a national park with eco-tourism could be one economic alternative to development. "It needs to be protected," he stated. "It's very important to provide public access to the area for educational purposes, and to enable people to understand the importance of protecting it."

Many people involved with the NTA feel that it should be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Efforts are currently under way to try and accomplish this goal. Anyone with information that could help to save the Yambaru forest is asked to call 965-5371.

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