25,000 Acre Wao Kele o Puna Forest Protected (HI)

HONOLULU, 7/19/2006: — The Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) announced today that it has purchased the 25,856-acre Wao Kele o Puna forest on Hawai’i Island. The Trust For Public Land (TPL), a national nonprofit land conservation organization with an office in Honolulu, negotiated the deal for the property and purchased it from the Estate of James Campbell, and then conveyed the culturally and naturally important lands to OHA. Many partners came together to make this public purchase possible including the Pele Defense Fund (PDF), the Hawaiian Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), the United States Forest Service (USFS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), TPL, and the Hawaiian Congressional Delegation, under the leadership of U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye. Funding for the purchase came from the USFS’s Forest Legacy Program funded by a $3.4 million Congressional appropriation championed by U.S. Senator Inouye.

“I am pleased to have played a role in securing federal funds for the protection of this special tract of land,” said Senator Inouye, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “Clean water, native forest habitat, and the perpetuation of Hawai’i’s native culture for future generations will be the enduring legacy of this incredible purchase.”

Listed as the Forest Legacy Program’s top national priority for funding last year, the 40 square mile property is part of the ancestral homeland of the Native Hawaiian people.

This culturally and biologically precious Native Hawaiian rainforest known as Wao Kele o Puna is located near Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. The property has for centuries been used and stewarded by Native Hawaiians, but for the last two decades been the site of intense controversy, litigation, and protest. While the property had been in a protective status under the Territory of Hawai’i and then the state, in the 1980s the forest became the proposed site for a large geothermal drilling project. However, test drilling met large-scale community opposition as well as litigation and in the end proved uneconomical. Recently, the landowner expressed a willingness to convey the parcel to conservation groups and an agreement was reached with TPL.

A leading community group, PDF, organized in the 1980s to protect native gathering and religious rights in the forest, was instrumental in focusing attention on the need for permanent protection for the forest. The property is valuable on multiple levels. Wao Kele o Puna is extremely important to Native Hawaiians, who for centuries have consistently used the property for traditional hunting, gathering, and religious purposes. In addition, the vast rainforest provides essential wildlife habitat for more than 200 native Hawaiian plant and animal species, including several that are listed as threatened or endangered. The vast forest also serves as a critical corridor for native birds traversing from mountain to the shore. The nearby Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park also depends on the vast forest as a seed bank to provide new growth on fresh lava flows that have covered the park’s own native forests. Because the natural cycle of life in that area is for some forests to be covered with lava while others survive, it is essential for the future of the park that the forest nearby be protected. Wao Kele o Puna is also important for protecting drinking water quality in Hawai’i County, covering over twenty percent of the P?hoa aquifer, the single largest drinking water source on the island.

OHA is acquiring the area to protect the natural and cultural resources on the land, to guarantee that Native Hawaiians can continue to exercise traditional and customary activities on the land, and to ensure that OHA can pass it on to a sovereign governing entity. The purchase represents a unique land protection opportunity for OHA due to the natural and cultural significance of the parcel, the size of the area (nearly as large as Kaho’olawe), and because the direct acquisition costs to OHA are small, although longterm management costs will be significant.

Wao Kele o Puna is OHA’s first cultural land purchase to have been approved by its Board of Trustees, helping to fulfill many long time goals of the organization and the Native Hawaiian people. It is the second to have closed, with OHA’s acquisition of Waimea Valley on the North Shore of O’ahu having closed two weeks earlier. Management responsibilities will be shared. At Wao Kele, DLNR is working closely with OHA and PDF to protect and properly manage the vast forest area, and looks forward to working with the greater Puna community for the same ends. Together, the parties will ensure that Wao Kele o Puna will no longer be threatened with geothermal energy production or converted to non-forest uses.

The vast majority of the funding for the purchase ($3.35 Million of a $3.65 million total cost) comes from the USDA Forest Service Forest Legacy Program, an innovative federal program that seeks to preserve forest areas and their natural and economic value. For over a decade, DLNR has participated in the Forest Legacy Program. The program fosters partnerships between private landowners, participating states, and the U.S. Forest Service to identify and protect environmentally and economically important forests from conversion to non-forest uses. In the last few years however DLNR, the Hawai’i Forest Stewardship Advisory Committee, and the US Forest Service worked to revise the Federal Forest Legacy Program in the islands, making conservation of forest lands throughout the state (including Wao Kele o Puna) possible.

Beyond the value of this area, the transaction itself is notable in many respects:

  • It marks the first return of ceded land (land formerly the property of the Hawaiian Kingdom) to Native Hawaiian ownership since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1893.
  • It is TPL’s largest project in Hawai’i, OHA’s largest land acquisition, and the US Forest Service’s and DLNR’s first Federal Forest Legacy Project with the state of Hawai’i as lead.
  • It is the first partnership between DLNR and OHA for land management with each agency learning from each other.