A Forest For All and Forever

By Will Stolzenburg

In the shadow of Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano, grows a special forest. Wao Kele O’Puna is a place many islanders hold dear. And for many reasons.

  • To the naturalist, Wao Kele O’Puna is the greatest remaining tract of tropical rainforest in Hawaii, harboring species of plants and animals living nowhere else on Earth
  • To the archaeologist, Wao Kele O’ Puna is a treasury of history, underlain with a complex of caves protecting the burial sites for native Hawaiians from times long past.
  • To the spiritual Hawaiian, those caves are the burial grounds of ancient ancestors, and therefore places of great power.
  • And whether they realize it or not, every citizen of the Big Island of Hawaii owes a vital debt to Wao Kele O’Puna, its forests standing guard over the single largest freshwater aquifer on the island.

Wao Kele O’Puna means many things to the varied people who hold it dear. And so those people, in turn, have done something for their forest. They have set aside 25 thousand acres of it, to be preserved forever.

And so it is with many places, near and far—the natural places that define our personal universes, are the places we now seek to preserve. They are the sanctuaries of wildlife and wildflowers; the fountains of pure water and food, shelter and fiber; the source of inspiring vistas and priceless memories. Pragmatic to some, romantic for others, they are all irreplaceable gifts of nature. And they are the roots and foundation of the principle we call conservation.

When Values Collide

There are other values that clash with those of the conservationist. In the case of Wao Kele O’Puna, some had come to see the forest as little more than land to be cleared and converted for city life. Between 1976 and 1993, east Hawaii’s urban centers expanded five-fold, while its rainforests dwindled by more than a third.

One can argue philosophically that there is no right set of values or places. But one can just as well argue that certain values, when optioned to the extreme, can destroy all others. The reason that the rainforest of Wao Kele O’Puna still stands, is because some have declared, that while cities may have their place, this special forest comes first.

In a world where such places are so rapidly vanishing, the conservationist’s immediate quandary has become, Which ones do we choose to stand and fight for? It comes as no surprise that commercial interests—with their profit motives and marketing budgets—come well-equipped to turn their short-term visions and values into reality. Yet those who see nature’s more eternal potentials have historically lost ground. How does the modern conservationist, in the real world of competing choices and limited finances and fleeting time, identify those special places most urgently needing action?

The Right Questions

The task begins with critical questions: What is it we care to preserve, and where does it still exist? Is it a 3-acre island of community greenspace being squeezed on all sides by runaway sprawl? Is it a 300-year-old family farm facing conversion to condos? Perhaps it is a secluded strip of beach harboring a nesting colony of seabirds in the path of yet another generic resort. Or a monumental interstate tract of wilderness, whose ecological integrity and soul-moving majesty are being frittered away for simple want of better planning.

And if it is to be preserved, then by whom? Is this a job for a local land trust, or a multilateral team of governing institutions and citizen groups spanning three states?

And finally: Why? Intuitive as it may seem, it is an intention worth stating before embarking on any conservation venture. Be it a hotspot of biodiversity or a historical landmark, a retreat for the spirit, or a wilderness for wilderness’s sake—to know why you would preserve a place, is to better know the way.

Following are three exemplars of conservation values that have been elevated from concept to physical reality. They are instances of priorities well-defined, well-informed, and empowered by a common purpose. They are presented as models of inspiration for conservationists of all stripes. Among these you will likely recognize not only priorities that match your own, but perhaps a better path towards seeing them preserved.

Depending on their missions, government agencies and conservation groups have long sought to establish clearly what it is they wish to protect in protecting a given piece of ground. America’s land trusts have increasingly followed their example.

Making use of a potent combination of scientific tools and old-fashioned shoe leather, these organizations characterize and document the values upon which their work rests. This approach holds, layer by painstaking layer, whether the task is mapping greenways and streamsides, charting biological hotspots and uncut wildlands, or documenting archaeological sites or more recent human communities with long, fertile pasts.

The reasons for setting aside our most precious remaining places are numerous -- – economic, aesthetic, utilitarian, spiritual – but they are not mutually exclusive. You’ll find further description of both the process and results of practitioners identifying and pursuing these targets throughout the site, but some of the most commonly held values include:

  • Protecting open space and rural land uses;
  • Providing recreational opportunities;
  • Preserving and maintaining ecosystem services;
  • Safeguarding biodiversity and ecosystem integrity

The examples that follow are three exemplars that elevate conservation values from concept to physical reality. These instances of well-defined, well-informed priorities are strengthened and empowered by their common purpose. They present models of inspiration for conservationists of all stripes. Among these you will likely recognize not only values that match your own, but perhaps a better path towards seeing them preserved where you live.

Virginia's Hallowed Ground


Will Stolzenburg is a wildlife journalist and former science editor of The Nature Conservancy Magazine. His book, Where The Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators, was published by Bloomsbury USA in July 2008.

 

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