Last Rain Forest in the US Is Threatened

PAO KELE O PUNA - the last tropical rain forest in the United States - covers the flanks of the live Hawaiian volcano Kilauea in the most volcanically active region of the world. But the forest will be destroyed if plans to locate a geothermal power plant there proceed. At the invitation of the US Rainforest Action Network, Patrick Anderson of Australia's Rainforest Information Centre, Mickey Dulas of California's Redwood Action Team, and I visited Hawaii recently and organized a series of presentations criticizing the planned power plant.

If this development proceeds, several hundred wells will be sunk into the volcano to generate steam to drive turbines. Deadly hydrogen sulfide gas vented from these wells will poison the rain forest, and brine from the wells, which the company plans to release on the surface, will complete the job.

These effects are obvious around an older geothermal plant that had operated for some years adjacent to the nearby town of Pahoa. This plant was recently closed in response to complaints and sickness within the community. Public concern is one reason the proposed wells (generating 200 times as much electricity as the well used by the closed plant) are to be situated in the forest away from settlements.

Unfortunately many plants and animals are even more susceptible to the noxious gases than humans (which is why canaries were once used to test toxicity in coal mines). We can be sure of utter devastation in the forests if the project goes forward.

Only 28,000 acres of this type of forest remain. Hawaii is one of the most isolated places in the world, so the forest is teeming with plants and animals unique to it. Ninety-five percent of the flowering plants and 97 percent of the animals are found nowhere else in the world. The thermal would therefore cause a spate of extinctions.

For instance, this forest is the home of the world's only carnivorous caterpillar - it sits on the edge of a leaf waiting, sometimes for weeks, for an insect to land within range.

One of the exciting features of the ecology here is the speed of change. Lava flows continually cover areas of forest before being blanketed once again by the vegetation finding root holds in the nutrient-rich material. This process, however, requires healthy stands of rain forest in close proximity .

The Hawaiian islands were formed (indeed are being formed) as the tectonic plate on which they lie moves slowly and inexorably over an underlying ``hot-spot.'' This movement generates the volcanic activity that pushed first Kauai, then Oahu (where Honolulu is located), then Maui (only a million years ago) up from the deep Pacific trench just as the Big Island is being pushed up now.

An eight-acre clearing was recently bulldozed for the first geothermal well, spurring increasingly determined protest. On Oct. 29 civil disobedience was used for the first time as 80 protesters blocked the roads leading to the forest and held up five semi-trailers loaded with drilling equipment. Three hours and five arrests later, the equipment continued its way up the volcano. More protests have occurred both on the Big Island and in Maui and Honolulu.

The volcano is sacred to the native Hawaiian religion, and a powerful alliance has been formed between native Hawaiians, who see the drilling as desecration of the Goddess Pele, and rain-forest conservationists.

The native Hawaiian Pele Defense Fund (PDF) was formed in 1983. It is locked in a court battle with the state and the developers, Campbell Estates. In 1985 the developers and the state of Hawaii traded an area of lava and stumps (clear-cut by Campbell Estates for woodchips to fuel an earlier power-generating scheme) for the pristine rain forest. Although the PDF initiated a court battle to stop the trade, the state has allowed the company to proceed while the case is pending. As part of the questionable terms of the trade, the environmental-impact statement the developers had prepared for the cut-over area would absolve them of the need to do an impact statement for the rain-forest land.

Once the volcanoes pushed land above the surface of the ocean and formed Hawaii, this land was colonized only by the descendants of creatures or plants that happened to be washed or blown there over many thousands of miles of open ocean. This is why only one native mammal exists there, the hoary bat. This is why the mints have lost their scent and the nettles their sting - no need to expend all that elaborate chemistry in the absence of a need to fend off large stomping, browsing critters.

This is also why scientists find these islands the world's best theater for the observation of evolution, even better than Darwin's Galapagos Islands because of Hawaii's isolation in time, distance, and environmental variation.

Destruction of the last low-land tropical rain forest in the US would be a severe blow to efforts to convince third-world nations to fend off development that will destroy their forests. President Sarney of Brazil once responded to President Bush's concern about the rain forest by advising him to look to his own backyard. The president should start with Hawaii.

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