Not anymore. And if the new park master plan approved May 25 by the state Board of Land and Natural Resources achieves its goals, it will never be that way again.
“Following that [flooding] … it was like it rolled back 50 years. It was like when it was when I was 10 years old. You could go to Ke`e and see one or two people on the beach. You could actually go swimming and not worry about your car being broken into. This flood has been mother earth’s way of crying out to us and saying, ‘Enough is enough,’” Ha`ena resident Chipper Wichman told the board as he testified in support of the plan, which he has spent decades helping draft.
“If this plan is not adopted, there is no legal mechanism for even trying to scale back. This is a critical moment in time,” he said.
“We have an opportunity and a window of time before hordes of visitors descend upon Ha`ena again to implement parts of the plan,” State Parks administrator Curt Cottrell added. “We’re working at Kealakekua Bay (on Hawai`i island), Kawainui Marsh (on O`ahu), and Ha`ena. The major theme is communities are under siege by the visitor industry. … The days of big box tourism and massive visitor centers we believe are obsolete,” he said.
The Ha`ena park master plan, a draft of which he recommended the Land Board approve, represents a paradigm shift: For the first time, his division is attempting to reduce visitation at a state park.
“Ha`ena, besides the beauty of Ke`e beach, is the gateway to the Kalalau trail and the Na Pali coast,” he said, noting that in 2007, more than 500,000 people hiked into Kalalau. “We know that in the decade since then, it is way off the Richter scale in terms of increased visitation now,” he said.
To reduce the number of visitors to the historic 65-acre park, the plan proposes a 100-stall parking lot located inside a gate along the highway and envisions a shuttle service, run by either the county or private entities and perhaps based at the resort community of Princeville, located six miles away.
“At the moment, putting aside the flood damage, you could cram 300 cars in [the park],” Alan Carpenter, State Parks assistant administrator, told the board.
Under the plan, the division would set a cap of 900 visitors a day to the park. That number would exclude “permitted overnight campers, hunters with valid permits, local residents, cemetery caretakers, volunteers attending various events, or kupuna or cultural practitioners who have cultural or ancestral ties to the area,” according to a DLNR press release. Those non-fee paying visitors would also have access to half of the 100-lot parking area, Carpenter said.
Two new restrooms using green wastewater treatment technology are also planned. Currently, only a single comfort station serves the entire park and it leaches into an area containing significant ancient Hawaiian burials, a situation Wichman calls unconscionable.
While all of the Land Board members seemed to support the intent of the plan, a number of them voiced concerns about how it would actually be implemented.
“I do think we have to be careful about some of the aspects of some of this. If we try to do some things by decree, this 900-person limit, that doesn’t mean you only end up with 900 people or 100 cars, especially if you have 2,000 people who want to go to one of the most beautiful places in the world. … I think what’s going to happen is if you cannot get into this park, you’ll go to the county park,” board member Chris Yuen said.
Yuen endorsed the idea of a shuttle and recommended that the division find ways to encourage its use, since the pre-flooding vehicle situation was “completely chaotic,” with visitors who couldn’t fit into the parking lot just pulling over onto the side of the road, in some cases blocking traffic.
If the number of cars is significantly reduced, “maybe you could let 2,000 people in,” he said.
He also said that regulations may need to be passed to enforce the 900-person cap, suggesting that a person who wants to walk into the park without buying a ticket ahead of time is probably not going to be deterred if all they’re doing is “violating the master plan.”
Kawika Winter, a member the community advisory council that helped draft the master plan, explained that he didn’t see the 900-person limit as a hard cap. “It’s not like if you’re [visitor number] 901, we’re going to tell you you can’t come in. We’re gonna look at, on a monthly average, 900. If we start to tick above that, then there are mitigation measures we can put in place to bring that back down,” he said.
“You could pay one price for walk-in entry or another if you have a vehicle,” Carpenter said.
Land Board chair Suzanne Case suggested that the kinds of details being discussed could be hashed out another day. “What we’re talking about today is a plan, not about the implementation steps. Some of them will need rules, some will not,” she said.
“This I believe is the first time we are proposing a limit in a state park. There’s a lot of new territory … Certainly there are going to be issues. Certainly there’s going to be illegal parking, but the point is to try to get it a lot better than it is now, which is chaos,” she continued.
In any case, Carpenter noted earlier, implementation is not going to happen overnight. His division only has $100,000 budgeted for improvements at the park and it’s likely to cost millions to actually implement the plan, he said.
In the end, the board unanimously approved the environmental impact statement and a draft of the plan, which is expected to be quickly finalized administratively.
(For background on this issue, see our article in the November 2010 Environment Hawai`i, “Board Talk: Land Board Approves Draft of Ha`ena Park Master Plan,” and the May 2017 issue, “Board Talk: Land Board Renews Ha`ena Curator Agreement.” Both issues are available free at www.environment-hawaii.org.)
— Teresa Dawson