Agreement Would Protect 25K Acres of HI Forest
Honolulu, 9/12, 2005 – Gov. Linda Lingle, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), and the Trust For Public Land (TPL) unveiled today one of the largest conservation purchases ever facilitated by the State of Hawai’i. The agreement will protect 25,856 acres – more than 40 square miles – of Native Hawaiian rainforest known as Wao Kele o Puna that is strategically located near Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.
The property has had a history of controversy, litigation, and civil protest, but is now on a path to permanent protection thanks to the partnership. Under the plan, the private non-profit Trust for Public Land will acquire the property next year from current landowner Campbell Estate and later convey the culturally important lands to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. DLNR is working closely with OHA to protect and properly manage the vast forest area when the transfer occurs. Together, the partnership will ensure that that Wao Kele o Puna will no longer be threatened with geothermal energy production or converted to non-forest uses.
Gov. Lingle announced the agreement to an audience of conservationists, Native Hawaiian groups, and others in her office at the State Capitol, flanked by representatives from OHA and TPL.
“Cooperative conservation means that everyone works together to preserve our outstanding quality of life in Hawai’i,” said Governor Lingle. “We are dedicated to ensuring that lands like Wao Kele o Puna where our culture and environment thrive are protected now and in the future.”
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 will serve as a protected corridor for native birds traversing from mauka to makai. Wao Kele o Puna is also critical to protecting drinking water quality in Hawai’i County, covering over 20 percent of the P?hoa aquifer, the single largest drinking water source on the island.
Last Friday, Sept. 9, the Board of Land and Natural Resources unanimously approved supporting the transaction. The planned acquisition would be a major conservation victory for DLNR, and also marks a new area for conservation partnerships. “This rare ecosystem comprises the last intact lowland native forests of its kind and has been the focus of controversy for over 20 years, as numerous Native Hawaiians and environmental groups opposed geothermal mining and the blocking of the long-term community access to the land,” said Peter Young, DLNR Chairperson.
“The benefit is going beyond the transfer of this land to OHA. In partnering with OHA, DLNR will assist in reinvigorating the Native Hawaiian communities’ capacity to manage land. DLNR will pursue other partnerships with OHA and other Native Hawaiian organizations to further enhance natural resource management.”
On Aug. 26, the Board of Trustees of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs unanimously committed to providing the necessary $250,000 in gap funding toward the purchase, as well as ongoing funding for planning and management. 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 less than 10 dollars an acre. Wao Kele o Puna will be OHA’s first cultural land purchase, helping to fulfill many long-time goals of the organization and the Native Hawaiian people.
“The ‘?ina is the foundation of our culture,” said Haunani Apoliona, Chair of the OHA Board of Trustees. “Our ability to protect such a rich and symbolic resource in partnership with TPL and DLNR means that future generations in Hawai?i will benefit from our collective vision and foresight in protecting traditional lands and resources.”
The U.S. Congress, thanks to the leadership of Sen. Daniel Inouye, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, approved $3.4 million in August from the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy program toward the purchase of the property.
“Given the many competing demands for federal resources in this tight budget year when our nation is at war, I am pleased to help secure funding for the protection of such an important piece our cultural legacy in Hawai’I,” said Sen. Inouye. “Clean water, native forest habitat, and the perpetuation of our Native culture for future generations will result from this incredible purchase.”
“We applaud Senator Inouye and the rest of Hawaii’s delegation for their continued commitment to providing funding to protect important cultural lands in Hawai?i,” said Tily Shue, Director of TPL’s Hawaiian Islands program. “The State Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs have worked overtime with TPL to put the protection of this very precious part of Hawai?i within reach.”
Draped on the flank of K?lauea Volcano, the Wao Kele o Puna forest sits within the Puna District of Hawai?i, a district that has seen explosive growth in recent years. Between 1990 and 2000, the district’s population grew by an incredible 28 percent, putting increasing pressures on the area’s surrounding natural resources.
“The U.S. Forest Legacy program protects forests that protect us,” said Rep. Ed Case, whose district includes Puna and who made Wao Kele o Puna one of his highest priorities for conservation funding this year. “This purchase will preserve clean water for a growing community while protecting critical natural resources that we all depend on in Hawai?i – this is an investment in Puna’s future.”
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 devastated the park’s own native forests. “The biological future of Hawai?i Volcanoes National Park is tied directly to the conservation of native forests at Wao Kele o Puna,” said Cindy Orlando, Hawai?i Volcanoes National Park Superintendent.
The forest had been the proposed site for a large geothermal mining project in the 1980s and ’90s, but test drilling met large-scale community opposition as well as litigation, and in the end proved uneconomical. The landowner placed the property on the market and recently struck the tentative deal for a conservation acquisition with the Trust for Public Land. A leading community group, Pele Defense Fund, organized in the 1980s to protect native gathering and religious rights in the forest and was instrumental in focusing attention on the need for permanent protection for the forest.
“We took a stand for this land two decades ago in the courts, and have never given up the fight to find a permanent way to protect this forest,” said Palikapu Dedman, President of PDF. “We are looking forward to working with OHA and DLNR to keep this forest healthy and thriving – it is our responsibility as much as it is our right to m?lama this place that means so much to our community.”
News of the conservation deal was celebrated outside of Hawai’i as well. “The struggle for this rainforest dramatically brings together Native cultural rights and environmental issues; the need to protect sacred, unspoiled areas for Native peoples gives Wao Kele o Puna national importance,” said John Echohawk, executive director, Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, Colorado. Environmentalists were also cheered by the announcement that offered an end to several decades of struggle. “WKOP was the site of the largest single act of peaceful civil disobedience for a rainforest in the United States,” recalled Randy Hayes, from the San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network. “A conservation purchase is a tremendous opportunity that we have all long hoped for.”
The vast majority of the funding for the purchase 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.
Prior to 2005, the only areas eligible for Forest Legacy were restricted to the leeward side of the Big Island. However, over the past two years DLNR and the Hawai?i Forest Stewardship Advisory Committee completely overhauled the program and expanded its reach to all of the Islands, making conservation of forest-lands throughout the state possible.
DLNR is proud of the expanded Forest Legacy Program throughout the State and encourages communities to become involved in public-private partnerships that will help protect other forests for the future of Hawai’i.
To learn more about the Forest Legacy Program visit http://www.state.hi.us/dlnr/dofaw/Legacy/