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Hawaii hotspot.

Wao Kele o Puna. Environmentalists and native Hawaiians say these 25,000 acres on the slopes of Kilauea, the world's most active volcano, are the last sizable lowland tropical rainforest in the U.S. But to state officials and developers who are drilling experimental geothermal wells in this famed rainforest on the island of Hawaii, Wao Kele o Puna is a potential source of energy that could solve the state's dependence on oil to generate electricity.

Either way, passions run high in this continuing controversy over forest management in a state that has lost 80 percent of its rainforest in the last 200 years.

Development opponents have nipped at the issue in David-Goliath fashion for almost eight years, filing dozens of legal challenges. Last January they scored their first victory through a suit demanding a federal Environmental Impact Statement now that Congress has appropriated $5 million for geothermal development. The federal district court issued a preliminary ruling that the project is -major federal action." If the court finds during the trial in june that development has the potential to affect the environment significantly, it will require the EIS.

"It's foolhardy to take such destructive steps (as drilling) without knowing what you're doing," says Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund attorney Skip Spaulding. That's why we filed the suit."

The EIS would cover not only the forest but

Goliath is clearly sick of David. -The whole forestry issue is overblown to the point of being ridiculous," says Mike Buck, administrator of the State Division of Forestry and Wildlife.

Buck also says 16,000 acres of Wao Kele o Puna were once part of the state's prime fillet' of public forestlands, one of the Natural Area Reserves created in 1971 to preserve unique biological areas.

But in 1985, to facilitate geothermal exploration, the state of Hawaii and Campbell Estate exchanged Wao Kele o Puna for Kahauale'a, a parcel of 25,000 acres upslope and adjacent to Volcanoes National Park. Wao Kele o Puna is now private land zoned "conservation. - Under a conditional-use permit, True Geothermal built about 3.5 miles of road and cleared eight acres-three more than specified in the permit. By late 1989 the first drill rig was at work.

True consulting botanist Charles Lamoureux considers state requirements stringent. -Anytime a new area is cleared, it has to be surveyed, almost tree-by-tree," says the University of Hawaii botanist.

The idea is to inventory what's already there, then control the spread of alien plants along the road cuts and drill pads. Lamoureux says both native and alien plants are sprouting. The control plan calls for monitoring every three months and for encouraging native species through selective spraying of herbicides, seeding native pioneer shrubs, and replanting tree ferns.

Lamoureux defends the selection of the project site on the grounds that it's an area already heavily disturbed. He blames wild pigs for much of the spread of exotic plants, particularly the strawberry guava that forms the understory in parts of the native ohialehua hardwood canopy. The guava shades out native species.

But ecologist Peter Vitousek says pig-spread exotics will multiply far worse along road cuts and drill-site borders, even if the five-acre sites to be cleared will total only a maximum of 300 acres, as the Campbell Estate claims.

The worst problem is not the amount of land cleared, but that the roads are corridors for exotic species," says Vitousek, a professor of biological sciences at Stanford University.

Vitousek acknowledges that Wao Kele o Puna is not entirely pristine, but -it's the best lowland rainforest left in the islands in terms of dominance by native species. Work in Hawaii can allow us to determine what controls the way tropical forests grow and develop all over the world-something we need more and more as the global consequences of tropical deforestation become more apparent." AF
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Title Annotation:Special Coverage: Forests on a Shrinking Globe; Wao Kele o Puna rain forest
Author:Bowman, Sally-Jo
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jul 1, 1991
Previous Article:How much is enough?
Next Article:Rediscovering the yellow poplar.

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