Protecting Pele’s Forest — Land&People

Palikapu Dedman is a bearish man in his late 50s. Dressed in a blue T-shirt, jeans, and flip-flops, he has a swept-back shock of graying hair and a big mustache. A fisherman by trade and a founder of the Pele Defense Fund (PDF)—a group dedicated to the defense of traditional Hawaiian customs and rights—Dedman has agreed to drive a reporter out to Wao Kele o Puna, a pristine, nearly roadless, 25,800-acre remnant of lowland rainforest recently conserved after 20 years of protests and litigation.

The forest lies south of Hilo, on the “big island” of Hawai`i, in the shadow of Kilauea, the world’s most active volcano. Wao Kele o Puna (the name means “rainforest of the district of Puna”) buffers the protected highland forests and lava lands of Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park and the Kahauale`a Natural Area Reserve from the farms and sprawl of the fast-growing Puna district. It contains dense 800-year-old tracts of red-blossomed `ohia trees and hapu`u tree ferns interspersed with recent, sparsely vegetated lava flows. More than 100 native plant species are found within the forest.

About a mile into the forest on its only access road, Dedman stops the car where a locked chain-link gate blocks the gravel road. A sign reads: “No Trespassing— Violators Will Be Prosecuted.” “This is it,” Dedman says with a smile. “This is where it all happened.” In March 1990, Dedman and other PDF organizers led more than a thousand demonstrators around this gate and into what was then a privately owned forest, in one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in the state’s history.

For more than a thousand years, Hawaiians hunted birds here and gathered plants for medicine and use in the traditional hula ceremony. But they lost control of this and all their land after the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai`i by American business interests in 1893. The land ended up in the hands of Campbell Estate, a large family-owned landowner and developer with 19th-century roots in Hawaii’s sugar plantations. In 1985, the state authorized Campbell Estate and its contractor to drill 25 test wells that could have led to massive geothermal development in Wao Kele o Puna. The goal was to tap Kilauea’s subterranean heat and generate power for transmission via undersea cable to Honolulu, 200 miles distant on the island of O`ahu.

Protests for Pele

Suddenly, the forest became a flashpoint in the struggle to protect native ecosystems and the landscape and traditional way of life of Hawaiians (as descendants of native people are referred to in the state). Too often, Dedman says, traditional Hawaiian land uses have not been considered in environmental debates. But such uses were at the center of the Wao Kele o Puna protests. Both Hawaiians and conservationists were incensed that the drilling would disrupt the ecosystem of the state’s last pristine lowland rainforest. And Hawaiians were disturbed that the drilling would take place on the slopes of Kilauea. The volcano is believed to be the home and chief manifestation of the Hawaiian goddess Pele, a central figure in Hawaiian religious and cultural practice.

Pele is worshiped by some Hawaiians; others celebrate her story in epic chants. And just about everybody fears her temper and vengeful ways, which include frequent flows of neon orange lava that ooze from Kilauea’s many vents, obliterating forests, beaches, and villages, and literally boiling the ocean in a timeless battle of the elements. Many people believed that drilling into the mountain was a desecration of Pele and that tapping her steam was akin to draining her blood.

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of the forest to native culture, says acclaimed performer Kekuhi Kanahele Keali`ikanaka`ole, the latest in a long line of distinguished hula practitioners in the Puna District. (The great-grandmother of Keali`ikanaka`ole was called Ah`ena`opuna, or the “fires of Puna.”) For generations, her family has collected trees and plants in Wao Kele o Puna: the liko (young leaves) from the `ohia tree to cure colds; the hard, ebony-like wood of the native lama for the construction of hula shrines. To many Hawaiians, the forest is sacred, Keali`ikanaka`ole explains. Its trees, herbs, vines, and ferns are gods.

“If we have no interaction with the deities, we cease to exist,” she says. “You cannot have Hawaiian culture without the interaction between the human native and the natives in nature. A forest like Wao Kele o Puna is one of our greatest shrines.”
 Eventually, PDF would file more than a dozen court actions seeking to stop the drilling and assert the rights of Hawaiians to hunt and gather in the forest. “We proved that there are Hawaiian hunters who hunt pig in Wao Kele o Puna, and that we always hunted there,” Dedman says. “We proved that there are families who have used the same places there for generations—for example, to gather medicines for their uncles, aunts, grandparents.” They gather mamake leaves to make restorative tea, Dedman tells me; maile vines and ti leaves for hula costumes; lama and `ohia wood for houses and shrines.

“They go in there, generation after generation. They use it, and they protect it—that’s the Hawaiian cultural aspect of this forest. It’s use and conservation,” Dedman explains. But these cases would fail to stop the drilling, and by the time Palikapu Dedman led the March 1990 protest, two test wells had already been drilled. Hawaiians were joined by hundreds of residents of nearby subdivisions and by conservationists and rainforest activists concerned about the effects of geothermal development on the environment. Dedman was arrested, along with 140 other protestors.

It was just one of several demonstrations at the height of the controversy: vigils, sit-ins in the governor’s office, blocking the forest’s access road. Eventually, the demonstrators’ message swayed public opinion against the drilling. Also, by the early 1990s, sensitivity to issues affecting Hawaiians had increased and a decade of real-estate speculation and development—often by developers from outside the state—had focused attention on Hawai`i’s shrinking native forests. When the drilling venture ultimately was abandoned in 1994, many observers believed that it was at least in part because public opinion mostly had turned against the project.

In 2001, the landowner put Wao Kele o Puna up for sale. A year later, a state court affirmed a PDF petition asserting the rights of Hawaiians to enter, hunt in, and gather plants from the forest, and also enjoined any future landowner from keeping them out. Sensing a path to permanent protection for their beloved forest, the Pele Defense Fund contacted The Trust for Public Land for help.

TPL was able to secure an agreement with the landowner and then began working with the state of Hawai`i on funding possibilities. The state submitted the project for matching grant funds from the USDA Forest Legacy Program (FLP). In July 2006, TPL acquired Wao Kele o Puna and transferred it to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), which funds and manages programs, services, and advocacy to benefit Hawaiians. The Hawai`i congressional delegation, in particular Senator Daniel Inouye, was essential to the success of this project by securing $3.4 million from the FLP.

From the point of view of Hawaiians, the deal is truly historic and begins to right a very old and painful wrong. Of the 1.8 million acres owned by the kingdom in 1893—more than a quarter of the present state—Wao Kele o Puna is one of the first significant parcels of land to be returned to Hawaiian control. It is also the first major parcel of land to be owned by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. The state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) will help manage the land initially and gradually pass all stewardship responsibilities to Hawaiians.

Planning for the Future

As the 20-year drama of preserving Wao Kele o Puna winds down, agencies, land managers, and the Puna community are working to develop a management plan that will balance the needs of Hawaiians and the environment with the wider public interest. Shortly after the agreement to protect the land was announced, residents gathered at a community center in the town of Kea`au, about ten miles downslope from the forest, to hear from agency personnel and offer opinions about the land’s future.

During a balmy twilight, cars slowly filled a parking lot overhung with a towering bank of Norfolk Island pine, coconut, breadfruit, and mango—a luxuriant, black jumble against the violet sky. In the florescent-lit basement of the community center, Palikapu Dedman reviewed for several dozen attendees the years of court cases. Then TPL project manager Josh Stanbro related how the Pele Defense Fund called him in 2001, seeking TPL’s help in protecting the forest. He asked the crowd to take the next step: “You tell us. We’re interested in knowing what the future will look like here.” Questions fly. How about public access and local traffic? Are they going to plug the geothermal wells that were drilled in the forest? Who’s going to determine who can access the forest? Will OHA make the rules? Will the state?

“We can manage the forest ourselves,” someone says. “We all love Wao Kele; it took everybody to save it, and it’ll take everybody to manage it.” Representatives from community associations in the rural subdivisions surrounding the forest volunteer to explore ways to support management and enforcement, as well as participate in weed-control and reforestation programs. One community group already maintains a native plant nursery and will make its plants available for replanting efforts at the forest’s compromised edges.

“We want to integrate with the surrounding communities,” says veteran Hawaiian activist Dr. Emmett Aluli, who helped found PDF with Dedman. “That should be the vision of the management plan. Other communities are watching what’s happening here.”

With the conservation victory behind them and the work of planning ahead, many Hawaiians think back on the battles and believe that Pele was watching. Palikapu Dedman recalls the early 1980s, when the state’s powerful Board of Land and Natural Resources came to the island to convene a hearing on PDF’s first lawsuit against geothermal plans. The night of the hearing, Dedman says, Kilauea erupted and created a new vent, Pu`u`O`o, just west of Wao Kele o Puna. The eruption was so bright that local fishermen out at sea thought it was a forest fire and called the fire department.

“She blew up right in the middle of it!” Dedman recalls. “And every month after that, when the board was over here, she erupted. When they left two days later, she’d stop.” He pauses and shakes his head. “You know, I ain’t got no power . . . I’m just one Hawaiian who does his mortal best to fight an issue. The spiritual stuff, I have no control. Something else does that.”

A former editor of the Honolulu Weekly newspaper, Curt Sanburn is a San Francisco-based freelance writer with an abiding interest in Hawaii’s cultural and political issues.