Health, Safety Concerns Prompt Commission To Recommend Closure of `Ahihi-Kina`u

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“We had this big high surf event. They closed down Big Beach. [Visitors] all ended up at La Perouse Bay. My ranger’s calling me up freaking out. Families getting out of their cars, walking along the coastline, big waves crashing over them… He was like, what do I do? I want to shut the area down for public safety. He had no authority in the area.”

Thus did Maui Natural Area Reserve System manager Bill Evanson describe a recent event at the `Ahihi-Kina`u reserve to the Natural Area Reserve System Commission at its October 12 meeting.

Later this month, the Board of Land and Natural Resources is expected to hear a proposal by its Division of Forestry and Wildlife, which administers the NARS, on whether or not to close access to the `Ahihi-Kina`u Natural Area Reserve for public health and safety reasons.

In October, the commission voted unanimously to recommend that the Land Board give the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ staff authority to close all or part of the reserve and adjacent state lands at Keone`o`io (also called La Perouse Bay) because of the dangers the reserve posed to the public.

As of early November, NARS staff was still preparing its report to the Land Board, but according to the discussion among commissioners and staff at the October NARS meeting, one person died at `Ahihi-Kina`u this year, and visitors crossing the hot, barren `a`a lava field to reach the reserve’s two popular snorkeling coves regularly require medical attention — everything from a drink of water to an ambulance.

Evanson said that around September, one visitor needed a helicopter rescue. “A guy walked across the lava flow and was deemed lost by his party,” he said.

Over the last few years, the commission and the DLNR have been struggling to control overcrowding at the remote, rocky reserve located on the Maui’s southern coast. Visitor numbers dropped significantly after the Land Board voted in May 2004 to bar commercial kayaking in the area.

Even so, the numbers are still high. Recent data complied by NARS staff show that last year, about 3,000 people a month visited Moku Ha cove, also known as the Fishbowl, about 2,000 a month visited Kalaeloa cove (aka the Aquarium), and some 100 people a day hiked the reserve’s trails. Over the last two years, including when commercial operations were at their peak, NARS staff says 48,000 people swarmed the reserve’s reefs and cultural sites.

Concerned about the effects so many people are having on the reserve’s natural and cultural resources, the NARS Commission, as well as members of a local advisory council established by the DLNR to address management issues at `Ahihi-Kina`u, have sought to limit access even further to protect the reserve’s fragile and unique anchialine ponds, archaeological sites, and species-rich coves.

Beginning last February, NARS staff started placing boulders on spots along the reserve road where people parked.

But recommendations by the NARS Commission that the DLNR close the road through the reserve have stalled because neither the state nor the county seem willing to accept ownership. The state’s position has been that as an operation of law, the county owns the road. However, despite the fact that the county has maintained the road for more than a decade, the county insists it has never officially accepted the road.

If the DLNR had control over the road, Evanson told commissioners that he would erect a gate at the entrance to the reserve, which he would close at night.

Over the past year, the NARS Commission has tried to get the department to institute an emergency closure to protect the area’s natural resources, an option that the DLNR’s deputy attorney general says isn’t allowed under current NARS rules. That interpretation was based on an attorney general opinion on the subject, which, however, did not address public health and safety issues.

But precisely those concerns were front and center at the October NARS Commission meeting. The DLNR does have the right to prohibit access to the reserve and all other state lands for such reasons.

One month earlier, the Land Board had voted to declare a portion of Hawai`i’s Kealakekua Bay a kapu area for safety reasons and to protect the area’s natural resources.

“Our request was predicated on public safety – rock falls and stuff like that – as well as natural resource protection. Our principal reason for the kapu zone is so that no one goes and harasses the nai`a (dolphins) while they’re resting…But in and of itself, that would not have made the case. Public safety was part of the compelling reason,” DLNR deputy director and NARS Commissioner Bob Masuda said at the meeting.

A presentation to the commission by `Ahihi-Kina`u ranger Matt Ramsey disclosed that 93 illegal activities – including the poaching of `opihi and taking of rocks and coral; theft; vandalism; and drug use – had occurred within the reserve between September 2004 and September 2005.

Although the commission had previously focused its efforts on protecting the reserve’s resources, Masuda noted Evanson’s wish to closure the reserve at night suggests that a genuine public safety issue exists.

NARS staffer Kristen Mitchell explained the issue further to commissioners who seemed confused as to why this option wasn’t pursued earlier.

“It’s [come up] just now with Matt being on the ground and having the data to show the public safety aspect. Up until Matt [started] being there and collecting this information, we were hearing from [reef ecologist] Dave Gulko, talking about coral impacts, the Hawai`i Wildlife Fund talking about how many cars they were seeing driving in and out…. Some of the safety issues were more anecdotal and not documented. [We weren’t] able to say, ‘On this date, we had to give out 10 Band-Aids. On this date, we had to call 911 four times.’”

* * *
DLNR Removes ‘Litter’
Left by Maui Cave Squatter

In October, the DLNR tried once more to rid a lava tube in the `Ahihi-Kina`u NAR of a now-famous squatter. Maui NARS staff posted three notices on the entrance to the lava tube notifying one-time occupant, Karen Mayfield, who had furnished, decorated, and lived in the lava tube for more than a year, that she needed to remove her belongings by October 28.

Mayfield, also known as Karen Rodriguez, made headlines in May when the state moved to evict her, and again in September when Maui County prosecutors abruptly dropped charges of illegal camping and depositing refuse, disturbing geological features, and storing personal effects in a NAR.

“In the final analysis, they would [have] ended up maybe getting a $50 fine after going through a jury trial, which she’s entitled to because it’s a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of a year in jail or a $1,000 fine,” said Maui NARS manager Bill Evanson at the October NARS Commission meeting.

“This thing has shaken up our department a little bit…. We’re thinking of revising a lot of our rules so we don’t get into this complicated scenario and so we can handle things in a simpler, less costly fashion,” he said.

Evanson told Environment Hawai`i that unlike the last attempt to remove her, no citations will be issued. “We’d simply be seizing her belongings after a specified time,” he said.

At 6 a.m. on November 15, DLNR staff began clearing the cave of the items. According to a DLNR press release, the state removed six sling loads of items – including carpeting, bedding, mattresses, food, and clothes – by helicopter.

The press release states that the DLNR is considering whether to pursue fines for multiple counts of littering.

Thousands of people a day cross this rugged landscape to reach the swimming coves at `Ahihi Kin`au Natural Area Reserve.

— Teresa Dawson

Volume 16, Number 6 December 2005

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