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Friends of Haiku Stairs urges lawmakers to keep the trail open

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Friends of Haiku Stairs, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving the Haiku Stairs hiking trail, is urging Honolulu City Council members to not go through with the removal of the structure.

Friends of Haiku Stairs President Vernon Ansdell said that last year the Council and mayor’s office had been receptive to a managed access plan for the trail.

“We got to the point where we had a pretty positive relationship with them,” he said.

“They had sent out a request for interest for people to manage the stairs, reopen them.”

However, since then, Mayor Rick Blangiardi took over for former Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s post, and five new Council members were elected.

“All of a sudden, there’s like a 180-degree change in direction,” Ansdell said.

During the budgeting process, the Council allocated $1 million to remove the stairs. However, Blangiardi is not required to release funds for items that the Council adds to the budget. That means that even though the removal of the stairs is included in the budget, that does not guarantee it will occur.

Haiku Stairs has been hotly debated for years over neighborhood disturbances and trespassing by hikers seeking to complete the illegal “Stairway to Heaven” hike, which has been popularized through social media posts and even some national entertainment attention.

Statements by Department of Parks and Recreation Director Laura Thielen have not indicated any definitive decision about the stairs’ fate.

“It became apparent that balancing the terms of the possible concession, its impact on the surrounding community/public facilities, and the easements necessary to control access to the stairs is extremely difficult to achieve,” she said last month in a statement.

“We believe there are solutions out there that can best balance the desire to maintain parts of the stairway for recreational use, while reducing the impact to the surrounding community which has dealt with the adverse effects of this closed trail for decades, impacts which should not be
ignored.”

However, another measure to remove the stairs is advancing through the City Council process, passing unanimously out of a committee, and likely will be scheduled for a vote in front of the the full Council.

Council member Esther Kia‘aina introduced Resolution 21-154 to allow for the topic to be better discussed after so many people testified for and against the removal of the stairs during the budgeting process.

Ansdell believes that it is possible to have managed access to Haiku Stairs without disturbing those who live in the area. Friends of Haiku Stairs came up with a plan that an organization willing to take over responsibility of the trail could use. That plan has been disseminated to Council members.

“We’ve had sort of limited meetings where we’ve tried to explain what our plan is,” he said.

“But from things they’re saying publicly about everything, I honestly think if they’ve read them, they haven’t understood them. So we need more in-depth conversations.”

The group’s plan would include a visitors’ office in Kaneohe, where a shuttle would transport hikers directly to the start of the trail. The hikers would need to pay to access the trail, and spots would be limited to 80 per day.

“So you’re not going to have hikers wandering through the neighborhood, knocking on doors and saying, ‘Hey, how do I get into the stairs?’” Ansdell said.

“They’ll be shuttled in, so there will be very limited traffic as a result of that. We just don’t have endless cars going in and out.”

Whatever organization that would take over the stairs also would cover the costs of maintaining the trail, security, liability and safety.

The ownership of Haiku Stairs was transferred from the Board of Water Supply to the city in July 2020. At the end of 2020 the Caldwell administration asked for organizations to put in proposals to manage access according to the plan created by Friends of Haiku Stairs. There were about 14 respondents, of which most proposed viable options, Ansdell said.

One issue in the managed-access plan is that portions of the trail are on land owned by the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. Because the department is concerned about potential liability resulting from hikers on the stairs, it has submitted testimony in support of the stairs’ removal. Kia‘aina also pointed out during a committee meeting on the subject that there would need to be an agreement with abutting landowners. No such agreement has been reached in
30 years.

Ansdell refuted claims that the Haiku Stairs is an overly dangerous hike, explaining that rescues are due to people hiking to the stairs through Moanalua Valley, on a relatively unmaintained trail, in an attempt to avoid running into guards at the start of the trail. Trying to access Haiku Stairs through Moanalua Valley also increases the length of the trail to almost
10 miles from two.

“It’s probably one of the safest hiking trails in Hawaii,” he said about using the stairs.

“It’s a stairway with railings you go up, you go down; you can’t get lost. And as long as you use basic common sense, you’re not going to trip and fall or anything like that.”

During the committee meeting on the resolution, Council member Andria Tupola was the only member who expressed interest in preserving the trail. She voted yes to the measure to remove the stairs, but with reservations.

“In the event that there’s a portion that we can manage, or that management can be suggested, I personally feel like my approach is, I don’t believe we should restrict access,” she said.

“Because like every other Native Hawaiian, we want access to our mountains or oceans to our beaches. And so I believe there’s
a middle ground here.”

If the Council does decide to proceed with the removal of the stairs, Ansdell hopes that Blangiardi will halt the action.

“It seems like a lot of people respond and just say, ‘Oh, it won’t work,’ without presenting any evidence,” he said.

“That’s just a really poor way
of trying to do something, just to throw up your hands and say it won’t work.”

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