JPRI Critique Vol. XXI No. 3 (February 2015)
Saving Ancient Trails in Hawaii
by David Brown, Ted Blake and Jimmy Medeiros


In June 2014 the United Nations’ cultural agency, UNESCO, granted World Heritage status to the Inca trail system, recognizing that trails can rank alongside the Acropolis in Greece or the Cathedral of Notre Dame in France as some of the world’s most important cultural treasures.

Hawaii has its own network of ancient trails, which were once at the very heart of Hawaiian culture. Great alaloa (long trails) circled each island carrying the king’s runners. Mauka-makai (inland-to-ocean) trails ascended up toward the mountains from each ahupua’a (traditional subdivision of land), providing economic sustenance to communities. Countless other trails were important enough to be part of the Hawaiian vocabulary, including ala iki (short narrow trails), alahaki (mountain ladder trails), and ala ulili (steep trails up cliffs).

Unlike the steps recently taken by UNESCO, however, Hawaii’s state government—including the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR)—has largely sat back and watched as Hawaii’s trails are steadily being paved over. DLNR is neglecting Hawaii’s trails, even as laws direct it to protect, preserve, and, where appropriate, provide public access to these cultural and historical treasures.

Hawaii actually has some of the most robust laws to protect trails. In 1892, shortly before the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Queen Liliuokalani enacted the Highways Act, providing that all trails then existing, and all trails built by the government thereafter, shall remain public resources until abandoned pursuant to due process of law. This act, substantively unchanged until today, was enacted when Hawaii’s public lands were being widely privatized.

In 1974, Hawaii’s Legislature reinforced the Highways Act by creating the Na Ala Hele (NAH) program under DLNR. Similar to the UNESCO decision to designate world heritage sites, Hawaii’s Legislature at the time recognized the need to “implement a statewide trail and access system” to “showcase Hawaii’s unique natural and cultural treasures for environmental education and for the appreciation of nature and history.”

Contrary to the original mandate given to the NAH, however, over the decades DLNR has largely failed to protect trails, either looking the other way or, worse, permitting developers to bulldoze, gate or even pave over Hawaii’s ancient trails. DLNR erroneously asserts that Hawaii’s laws are not strong enough to protect Hawaii’s ancient trails. As a result of government’s failure to take action, communities themselves have had to sue developers and landowners to protect Hawaii’s trails and accesses. For example, in 2002, community groups—with no aid from DLNR—had to take up the burden of protecting a stone-paved, 2-mile stretch of the ancient alaloa that traversed the Hokulia property in South Kona, which state archaeologists confirmed was built by Hawaiians no later than the 14th century.

Last year on Maui, DLNR again refused to act to protect Haleakala Trail until citizens sued DLNR and Haleakala Ranch Co. (HRC). Subsequently, DLNR agreed to participate in the lawsuit against HRC only to avoid being named a defendant. In April 2014, a jury ruled in favor of the public to protect 4 miles of this historical trail. Despite this landmark victory, DLNR continues to neglect the trail, and is even considering a possible deal to exchange Haleakala Trail for other property located elsewhere on Maui.

On Kauai, citizens have also been forced to go to court in an effort to try to enforce laws that were specifically enacted to preserve the ancient Hapa Trail, which is being threatened by the planned subdivision at Poipu.

Our Hawaii Legislature has also failed to enforce the public’s rights in these trails and accesses. During the 2014 session, HRC sought radical amendments that would have eviscerated the Highways Act. Not coincidentally, the bill would have retroactively applied to nullify the lawsuit aimed at protecting Haleakala Trail.
In the past decade, few leaders have expressed outrage at DLNR’s actions; fewer still demanded that the state agency follow the law to protect Hawaii’s ancient trails. We urge current candidates for public office to publicly commit themselves to following, and seeking implementation of, existing laws preserving historic trails. Who else will protect Hawaii’s unique heritage?


David Brown is executive director of Public Access Trails Hawaii (PATH); Ted Blake is director of Malama Koloa; and Jimmy Medeiros is president of Protect Keopuka ‘Ohana.


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