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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Big Island rainforest preserved

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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PUNA, Hawai'i Two large land parcels described as the last large, intact lowland rainforest in the Islands were dedicated for preservation yesterday in a ceremony that praised efforts by people who protested and sued to block plans to develop the site for geothermal energy production.

U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye told a gathering of about 200 people at the dedication of the Wao Kele O Puna rainforest that he initially supported geothermal development on the site in the 1980s, but realized he had made a "bad mistake" after the energy project failed.

Inouye later played a key role in securing $3.35 million in U.S. Forest Service Forest Legacy Program funds to cover most of the cost of buying the property to preserve it.

He told the crowd yesterday that "I hope all of you will forgive me" for his earlier support for geothermal drilling on the site.

The state Office of Hawaiian Affairs provided the last $300,000 needed to complete the Wao Kele O Puna land purchase from the Campbell Estate, and OHA took title to the 25,856-acre rainforest last year. OHA will manage the land under a 10-year partnership with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

The federal funding for the land purchase prohibits any future geothermal development on the site, and state lawmakers have appropriated more than $2 million to plug and abandon a mile-deep geothermal well on the site, said OHA Director of Land Management Hale (or division) Jonathan Scheuer.

Scheuer said OHA plans to work with the state and Pele Defense Fund to manage the property to guarantee traditional access for Native Hawaiian gathering and cultural purposes, and will eventually transfer the property to the new Hawaiian nation that OHA's trustees believe will be formed.

"Here at Wao Kele, the quiet of the forest once drowned by the drilling of a geothermal well once again echoes the whispers of the breezes," said OHA trustees Chairwoman Haunani Apoliona.

Inouye and others said the transfer last year marked the first time since the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom that ceded lands were returned to an organization representing Native Hawaiians.

The state transferred the property to the Campbell Estate in 1985 in a land swap meant to encourage geothermal energy development, a process that uses heat generated by nearby Kilauea volcano to produce electricity. Campbell Estate hired a developer, but the developer abandoned the project in 1994.

The land exchange that delivered the rainforest areas to Campbell Estate was extremely controversial, and triggered years of protests and lawsuits led by the Pele Defense Fund, including litigation financed by OHA.

In 2001 Campbell Estate announced it planned to sell the land, and the Pele Defense Fund, the Trust for Public Land, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, and OHA combined efforts with the U.S. Forest Service to buy the land.

Palikapu Dedman, president of the Pele Defense Fund and a leader in the years-long effort to stop geothermal development at Wao Kele O Puna, choked back tears as he described the arrests at the site 16 years ago.

"I gotta start by thanking about 400 people that got arrested. A lot of kupunas got arrested, and about 13 children," he said, his voice breaking. "We was just being ourselves as native people. It's been an emotional journey."

"We have to stand up, I guess, for ourselves and just continue doing what we're doing. If government's going to have to catch up, they're going to have to catch up, but we still have to be there to remind them of their responsibilities ... to indigenous people," he said.

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com.