HONOLULU — YOU don't have to go to Brazil for a fight over a tropical rain forest. Wao Kele O Puna, 27,000 acres in Hawaii on the flanks of Kilauea, the world's most active volcano, is not only United States territory but also the last sizable tropical rain forest in the nation. ``It makes no sense for Americans to demand protection for rain forests in developing countries if we're not going to do it at home,'' says Meg Ruby of Greenpeace. The group is one of several national and international organizations that joined opposition to Hawaii geothermal development in 1989. Developers want to use the underground energy source to generate electricity. Geothermal exploration in the forest is the vanguard of a scheme that will turn the Big Island's Puna district south of Hilo into ``the Pittsburgh of the Pacific,'' says attorney Tom Luebben. He has been fighting for forest preservation since 1985. His nightmare of the future includes a forest desecrated with hundreds of geothermal wells and power plants spewing the toxic, rotten-egg smell of hydrogen sulfide.
Nonsense, says Roger Ulveling, director of Hawaii's Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism. Geothermal development would take only 350 acres, and would free Hawaii from its 90 percent dependence on oil. His vision is to export most of the 500 megawatts of electricity that could be produced to Honolulu and visitor-intense Maui via a deep-sea, high- voltage cable to be developed. Mr. Ulveling suggests that, without additional power sources, Hawaii island may have blackouts this year.
Some residents, such as the Hawaii Island Geothermal Alliance, favor limited development for electricity needs but oppose a system big enough to export energy.
Actually, opponents of geothermal development also support using alternative energy sources, but contend that other means will not so severely affect the ecosystem, endangered species, archaeological sites, and native religious and cultural practices.
A consortium of nine local and seven national organizations recently requested that Hawaii Gov. John Waihee impose a moratorium on geothermal and undersea cable development until a comprehensive federal environmental impact statement is completed and Hawaii finishes the resource planning it started earlier this year.
The groups, which include Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Environmental Action, the Rainforest Action Network, the National Parks and Conservation Association, the Rainforest Alliance, and the Sierra Club, have been joined by US Rep. Patsy Mink (D) of Hawaii in calling for a freeze on federal funds appropriated for cable research.
From 1983 until the national groups became involved early in 1990, opposition came mostly from the Pele Defense Fund, named after the ancient Hawaiian goddess of the volcano. Many members of the group worship her as the deity who both destroys and creates. They see the forest as her sacred place of renewal and drilling into her Kilauea volcano home is as sacrilegious as drilling under the Vatican. ``There is no compromise,'' says Emmett Aluli, a Pele Defense Fund founder and a native Hawaiian physician. ``Pele is not for sale.''
How pristine her forest may be is open to varying scientific opinion. But it's here that Hawaiian herbalists gather unique medicinal plants. And it's here that native woodcarvers gather raw materials and hula dancers pluck special flowers and ferns to adorn themselves for performances in praise of Pele.
Recently, state archaeologists discovered a fortressed lava tube beneath the forest. The cave system is more than 10 miles long and contains ancient burial sites and religious structures.
Pele is known to virtually all island residents, and many will say it is her caprice that recently destroyed much of Kalapana village and its famous black sand beach only a few miles seaward from Wao Kele O Puna. Some point out that, in 1985 Pele covered in lava the original geothermal drill sites at Kahauale'a, private land adjacent to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which was selected because engineers felt there was ``minimal chance of geological disruption.''
The state of Hawaii then traded Wao Kele O Puna, which had been designated a ``natural reserve area,'' for the private land to provide a drilling alternative.
A suit challenging the land swap is one of a number of pending legal proceedings that include a motion in federal court for an injunction requiring a comprehensive environmental impact statement. A local case challenges additional drilling permits. Trespass cases stemming from an incident last spring will be heard Dec. 13.
Last March, about 2,000 people entered a fenced drilling site and 141 were arrested. Everybody brought to court has been found guilty, but fined only $25 each. A handful of people plan on appealing the ruling. The previous year, native Hawaiians, led by a traditional chanter, walked barefoot for several miles on a new crushed-lava road to the drill site's last remaining ohi'a tree, whose scarlet blossoms are considered sacred to Pele. Under the tree they built a rock altar to the goddess. The next morning both the altar and the tree were bulldozed.
``There will be more demonstrations, I'm sure, especially if we lose court cases,'' says Davianna McGregor, a member of the Pele Defense Fund and a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii. ``But we've come a long way in a year. We haven't won any major court battles yet, but we've created a new political awareness. From here on out, geothermal will be reviewed more critically.''
Indeed, observers say that there's not so much talk these days about the 500-megawatt system. Maurice Kaya, energy coordinator for the state's Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism, says, ``It's made energy planners open their eyes more and become more intense in [their] desire to do the project right.''
Yet state officials continue to say geothermal energy will be clean, renewable, and environmentally and commercially sound.
Opponents say it loses on every score. They point to the closing last year of an experimental plant near the village of Pahoa outside the forest, downhill from the current drill site. The state evacuated area residents when a malfunction sent excess hydrogen sulfide into the air.
It may also not be the least-cost energy option. An independent economic study by Northwest Economic Associates in Vancouver, Wash., contends that geothermal development will cost more than double the state's estimate of $1.7 billion.
But some state officials clearly wish opponents of geothermal development would go away. The deputy director of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, Manabu Tagomori, calls the uproar ``localized objection. It's basically a `not in my backyard' situation. But they're looking at every step or misstep and using other means, like the rain forest action groups.''
Puna resident Bob Petricci of the Big Island Rainforest Action Group says the state warrants a watchdog. ``At first we did public testimony and legal things individually, but they were going to run right over us. Last October, we were meeting to discuss whether to organize, and a fleet of trucks went by on their way to the drill site. If we had had a fair hearing, these things wouldn't be happening.''
It could happen that Pele herself may be the final arbiter. Says Mr. Petricci, an 18-year island resident who grew up in California, ``I'm not a real believer in Pele, but the way this eruption is going, it's possible that all these wells and things can be wiped out. I'm waiting to see if, the day we stop this development, the volcano shuts down.''