Under the Sun
If we can't use it, then what good is nature?
DRIVING Highway 11 past Volcano Village, you top a rise as the road curves slightly to the right.
Most times, mist blurs the near view of ohia and hapuu forests along the way. But in the distance, Mauna Loa may reveal itself, surprisingly clear of clouds, a reddish aura glowing from slopes and summit.
Covering more than a half of Hawaii island, the huge volcanic mountain seems to make its own weather, prescribing rain and winds north toward its rival Mauna Kea and southeast where a nursling Kilauea fusses with its persistent, attention-grabbing eruptions.
To the west, Mauna Loa teases coffee farmers with cool temperatures and moisture, sometimes with just the right mix to breed blossoms, then the premium beans that distinguish the locale. From South Point and the coastline, ocean water vaporized by the day's heat shapes clouds that skim inland.
So broad is its profile that it appears to be part of the sky. I've often seen visitors at the national park peering through the clouds, trying to distinguish terrain from atmosphere.
You can't see all of it at once, unless from space. You can travel for hundreds of miles without leaving its flanks.
Along its lower elevations, human activity swarms the mountain even though it is one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Its last eruption was more than 20 years ago, a blink in geologic time, a long span from human perspective.
Midway up, pasture lands show green where ranches have been established, but rusty reds and buff dominate the higher ground where native plants, stunted by the harsh environment, break the lava with their roots.
Some of my intrepid friends have hiked to the summit. They speak passionately about the climb, how the physical difficulty brings spiritual rewards, about the pure, extreme beauty of nature intact.
I've never made it to the top. The highest I've managed is about the 7,500-foot level and for me, that's enough. To sprawl on a crackling boulder, feeling the contrast of a slightly closer sun and the chill of the high-altitude air, watching wisps hover in rain forests way below, hearing only my own breathing and the whispers and pulse of the mountain -- that's enough.
I fear the plan that was unveiled earlier this month that would construct a 350-mile "system" of connected trails on Mauna Loa, with more than a dozen feeder roads snaking up from every direction, all in the name of eco-tourism.
Though it sounds benign, eco-tourism and its more intrusive cousin, "adventure tourism," are really nothing more than tourism in outdoor clothing. There's nothing eco-friendly about an RV park with electrical hook-ups, a dirt bike path or an all-terrain vehicle road, but they are what the plan might allow, along with helicopter tours.
Proponents argue that the system would make Mauna Loa more accessible, but why does it have to be? Why does Mauna Loa have be further imprinted or used by humans?
And it's not only the mountain. A Bush administration official described with delight his recent visit to Midway to enlighten himself before making decisions about protections for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
He remarked that it was a place where nature ruled, not man, then proceeded to outline how Midway could be the gateway to the northern islands. He envisioned aircraft and boat tours that would buzz over and around the islands. He saw how pharmaceutical researchers could shuttle to atolls and reefs in a hunt for new drugs or nutritional products.
It seems to me that the prevailing attitude is that everything on Earth is there for abusive exploitation, that if we can't eat it, churn it, burn it or drink it, if we can't make money off of it, natural areas aren't worth much
One news account described the system as trails that "would drape like a lei" over Mauna Loa. To me, it looked like a noose.
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Cynthia Oi has been on the staff of the Star-Bulletin since 1976. She can be reached at: email@example.com