Save them or tear them down? The city is close to finally deciding the fate of Haiku Stairs

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Published: Jul. 9, 2021 at 12:20 PM HST|Updated: Jul. 9, 2021 at 12:21 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The fate of the Haiku Stairs along the high ridges of the Koolau mountain range remains up in the air ― but it appears after decades of debate the city is closer than ever on making a call about whether to save them or tear them down.

Both sides are lobbying hard. And if you’ve heard their arguments, you’re not alone.

Hundreds of articles and videos about the so-called “Stairway to Heaven” saturate the internet.

There are the reports of trespassers facing $1,000 fines. The story about an influencer crying on the steps realizing his fear of heights. Haiku residents pleading for the removal of the stairs. Thrill-seekers nearly falling to their deaths.

Even National Geographic featured the stairs in 2015 as one of the best hikes in the world “at risk.”

City Council Vice Chair Esther Kiaaina said ultimately, the decision to release the funds to tear the stairs down is in the hands of Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi.

Kiaaina recently introduced a resolution to remove the stairs after decades of controversy. The proposal came just a few months after the council approved $1 million in the 2021 budget to dismantle them.

But Laura Thielen, Blangiardi’s parks director, isn’t sure tearing down the stairs is the right call.

She said she believes there’s a way to maintain the stairway for recreational use while reducing the impact on the surrounding community.

John Flanagan, longtime activist and original member of the Friends of the Haiku stairs, said tearing the stairs down would be a big mistake.

The 88-year-old has three worn binders filled with historical records of the conflict about the stairs.

“How many thousands of person-hours have we spent talking about this? And still, when a meeting comes up, people come up with the same objections they came up with 35 years ago,” he said.

A step back in time

In addition to advocating for the stairs to be saved, Flanagan has spent decades documenting their historical significance.

The “Stairway to Heaven” was not initially built for Instagram posts. It was used for top secret communication during WWII.

The U.S. Navy needed a high-powered, long-range communication station to ensure radio transmission across the Pacific. After laborers worked to build easier access to the station by climbing the ridge and building ladders with planks of wood and steel pins, the stairs were completed in 1943.

After the war, the U.S. Air Force used the Communication Control Link Center for about a decade and by the 1970s, the station was in the hands of the Coast Guard.

During that time, civilians were allowed to sign a waiver at the station and climb the stairs.

Flanagan said the stairs started to see more recreational use when a 1981 episode of “Magnum P.I.” was shot there. Later that year, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin published “It’s Getting Crowded at the Top,” an article referring to the significant increase in daily visitors to the stairs.

At the time, the Coast Guard estimated 20,000 annual hikers in 1981.

And as usage increased, other problems emerged.

People vandalized and littered on the trail; there were reports of arson and theft in the communication stations and climbers were trespassing on nearby private properties.

In 1987, the Coast Guard decided to close the stairs for repairs.

And that was the last time it was legally open to the public.

Following its closure, Flanagan saw a letter to the editor in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser requesting help to create a group called the Friends of the Haiku Stairs — that later became a non-profit.

After years of petitioning, reaching out to local government officials and trying to find solutions with Haiku residents, a resolution was still not in sight.

“I’m just so disappointed that a whole generation has grown up without having access to it,” Flanagan said. “If we’re interested in the history, and Hawaii’s part in it, (the Haiku Stairs is) one of the very few things left that can show and tell the story of what happened here.”

In 1999, the U.S. General Services Administration turned over 147 acres of the former U.S. Coast Guard Omega Station to the state Department of Hawaiian Homelands.

The land was deemed unfit for homestead development.

Eventually, the Board of Water Supply took control of the stairs ― until July 2020 when the board unanimously voted to transfer the land back to the city.

Today, life on the stairs looks dramatically different than just a decade ago, according to Haiku resident and native plant specialist Richard Barboza.

Land of the lawbreakers

On a single summer night during pre-pandemic times, Barboza hosted a stakeout with community members to count the number of illegal trespassers.

Between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., he counted 191 people people tresspassing to get to the stairs.

“I think the breakdown was 70% not local, 30% local. And of the non-local, there was probably, I would say, 60%, tourists and 40% military,” Barboza said.

While this was an unofficial count, he attributes the increase in hikers to social media.

Barboza owns about 12 acres that stretch across the residential area in the back of the valley. On that land sits a waterfall and a small swimming hole.

Occasionally, trespassers cool off after their hike up the stairs.

“I would catch these guys doing these private tours, and taking people up there, getting paid for it, but then using our place as like part of their tour,” he said.

The Honolulu Police Department released a statement last Friday reminding the community that there is no legal way to access the stairs and said they issued more than 70 citations and made five arrests in the second half of June. Of those arrested was an “individual known to guide hikers up the stairs.”

Despite HPD saying that there is no legal access, HNN reached out to guides through popular booking sites like Airbnb Experiences and Trip Advisor who promise legal access to the stairs.

These guides charge up to $450 per person for a guided hike to the stairs.

According to one guide, most experiences start and end at an alternative entry point, and their package includes snacks, water and photo opportunities.

This reporter asked about risk factors and one guide responded, “I only take people the legal way up to the top. It will be your own decision to take a couple more steps onto the stairs.”

Another said that he does the 10.5-mile hike every week, blocking out about one hour of rest at the summit for photo and video opportunities.

Seeds of change

Despite years of neighborhood complaints of noise, trespassing, vandalism and theft, Barboza said he supports keeping the stairs through a private-public partnership.

He sees this as the only feasible solution to save the native plants atop the summit of the Koolaus.

When Barboza first moved to the valley in 2006, he volunteered with the Friends of the Haiku Stairs and was “blown away” by the diversity in native plants and animals, recognizing rare endangered species.

About two years ago, Barboza was hired to conduct a biological survey of the stairs and said he was shocked again ― but for quite different reasons. The native plants that once peaked through the steps of the stairs were no longer in sight.

And weeds typically found at the base of the valley were tracked to the top and rapidly spreading.

“My stance right now is managed access because my whole concern is removing those invasives along the stairway corridor, especially at the summit of the Koolaus,” he said.

Barboza counted five endangered species at the summit in his evaluation.

According to Barboza, private-public management would be beneficial for everyone to avoid spending taxpayer dollars, generate revenue and restore the area.

From a selfish point of view, Barboza said the preservation of native species keeps Hawaii’s drinking water pristine and from an ecological stance, invasive species jeopardize Hawaii’s unique habitat.

Barboza also believes that tearing the stairs down will not discourage hikers from continuing to climb up the ridge. So, he’s openly talked to people interested in finding solutions.

The sky’s the limit

Harvey Nakamoto Jr. — who created an adventure tour company — submitted one of 13 requests for information to manage the stairs through a public-private partnership early this year.

As an avid adventurer, Nakamoto wanted to be a solution for the Haiku community while bringing legal access to the stairs back to the Hawaii community. Three years ago, he started attending Kaneohe neighborhood board meetings.

“I’ve identified 13 major nuisance, vandalism and theft issues,” Nakamoto said.

“And you know, through that identification process, and speaking with neighborhood members, we came up with solutions for all of them.”

In a detailed controlled and managed access plan that’s publicly available, Nakamoto proposes a public-private partnership to reopen the stairs.

First, the proposal lays out the problems:

  1. Impact on the immediate neighborhood and the broader Hawai’i
  2. Community and hiker safety
  3. Protection and restoration of the cultural and ecological significance of the area

It also outlines the proposed solutions:

  1. Mitigate or eliminate impacts on the surrounding neighborhood
  2. Implement safety improvements and procedures to increase safety
  3. Only allow guided commercial tours to ensure respect for and preservation of the land

Nakamoto’s plan includes fronting the money to fix and manage the stairs, having 24-hour security, transporting hikers from an offsite location, requiring certified guides on every hike, and capping the number of daily hikers.

Managed Access Plan by HNN on Scribd

Healing Haiku

Kiaaina said she’s never supported the reopening of the stairs and believes tearing it down is the only real solution to heal the community.

“It’s not just the disrespect of the rule of law, and disrespect for communities that’s being demonstrated, but you have to take seriously the threat to public safety and the liability concerns of the city,” Kiaaina said.

Because the stairs were originally built for communication, not hiking, she said she sees no reason to preserve and maintain the stairs.

When asked about the possibility of a public-private partnership, she said she does not believe anyone can manage to deter illegal trespassing due to the other points of entry to access the stairs.

In her resolution, Kiaaina listed some of the major disturbances to the neighborhood around the stairs, including strangers in the area, hikers parking in private driveways and trespassing.

Kiaaina said she expects a final decision from the Blangiardi administration within the next 60 days, but assures all community members that they will have an opportunity to voice their opinions before then.

And Flanagan, who has spent decades advocating for the stairs to be reopened, intends to do just that.

When he looks back on his life, he sometimes entertains ideas of what else he could have spent his time on. But when asked if he would take the time back, he pursed his lips and shook his head.

“There’s no other place that has all these things — geology, botany, biology— it’s just a ton of value that’s worth preserving,” he said.

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