OHA buys Wao Kele forest land on Big Island
HILO » The Office of Hawaii Affairs has completed the purchase of 25,856 acres of forested land known as Wao Kele O Puna south of Hilo, the agency announced yesterday.
"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," an OHA statement said.
OHA Chairwoman Haunani Apoliona called the purchase a "gifted moment" in increasing the assets of native Hawaiian people.
The Hawaiian culture-based Pele Defense Fund asked the Trust for Public Lands to buy the land in February 2005. With $3.35 million of the $3.65 million purchase price supplied by the U.S. Forest Service, the sale to the trust and then to OHA was concluded Friday, OHA announced.
The term "wao kele" refers to the wet, lush middle elevations between the coast and the dry mountain uplands. Although few people lived there in ancient times, coastal dwellers often went upland to collect resources there.
Starting two miles downhill from the present Puu Oo eruption site and stretching another nine miles, Wao Kele O Puna was a site of controversy in the 1980s when a large geothermal energy development was planned in the native ohia forest by True/ Mid-Pacific Geothermal Venture.
Environmentalists and Hawaiians opposed the project, sometimes in demonstrations that resulted in arrests. The Pele Defense Fund sued to halt drilling.
Opponents credited demonstrations and the lawsuit with stopping the project. True/Mid-Pacific said it could not find a usable geothermal resource.
Meanwhile, land ownership shifted. The initially state-owned Wao Kele O Puna lands were traded in 1986 to Campbell Estate. In turn, the state received Campbell's Kahaualea lands immediately uphill.
Advocates of the exchange said it was fair because Kahaualea had better native forest, with fewer invasive non-native plants.
In 1983, eruptions began that covered much of Kahaualea with lava. Preservation of Wao Kele O Puna provides a source of plant and animal life to restore the new lava lands, OHA said.