STAIRWAY TO NOWHERE
STAIRWAY TO NOWHERE
Board of Water Supply customers pay for access to the Haiku Stairs to remain closed. With no solution in sight, people are paying for more than just their water.
BY THE HO‘A FEATURES TEAM
The island of Oahu is known for its beautiful beaches and breathtaking hikes. And with so many adventures for hikers to go on, it's no secret that Oahu holds trails--that are to die for. To many locals, some hikes are considered hidden treasures. Hikes that you often can’t find directions to on the internet are ones that are the most appealing. Photos of many illegal hikes appear on social media platforms, proving that they are accessible, and the warning signs are being ignored. The Haiku Stairs, otherwise known as “Stairway to Heaven” has been a problematic topic on the island for a few years, and like any issue comes with numerous complications. One factor that seems to be bigger than most is that the closed stairs still stand and nothing has changed. Solutions have been discussed and explored, but one has not been approved. Until something is changed, residents of Oahu are paying for more their just their water.
In 1942, a total of 3,922 steps were built to access a radio communications center. When the Coast Guard radio station closed, so did the maintenance for the stairs, causing them to be officially closed to the public in 1987. The Coast Guard abandoned the facility in 1997 after newer navigational technology was introduced, and the stairs remained closed once the Coast Guard left.
Why are the Haiku Stairs illegal? There haven’t been many deaths or incidents reported on these stairs, but the public is continuously told to stay away. However, it doesn’t stop some daring hikers.
The hiking community saw hope when there was media coverage of a proposed fee to legally hike the trail. This was a plan drawn up by the Friends of Haiku Stairs, an activist group hoping to see the reopening of the trail. The plan predicts that an individual fee could generate $1.7 million in a year, which would be enough to open and maintain the trail.
Angry residents have come forward to Ho’a Oahu explaining how trespassing hikers are disturbing their peace, a problem that’s occurring because there is no public access to the closed trail. Many hiking enthusiasts argue that if there was clear public access, these problems would no longer occur.
The Haiku Stairs is located on private property owned by the City and County of Honolulu for the use of the Board of Water Supply. In 1958, the city obtained the land from the Bishop Estate for the purpose of watershed and developments in the Kaneohe-Kailua water system. Trespassers risk getting a fine of up to $600 and/or 6 months in prison to experience the incredible views this hike is said to offer. They also are upsetting neighboring communities with the disruptive behavior and tracks they leave behind. Although the hike has been closed since 1987, it’s clear that people are finding ways to get on the trail.
It’s been a questions for years – Why are the Haiku Stairs closed to the public? Common beliefs include that it’s unsafe or trespassing. Although many people share the same perceptions, the reasons behind them still remain a mystery to most.
With the problems that come with the trail being closed, there’s also something to consider: Is the problem that the stairs are closed, or that they still exist?
Why are the Haiku Stairs illegal? - Safety, or turning the other cheek?
Compared to other hikes, the Haiku Stairs does not have any significant count on incidents regarding safety. So what exactly is it that’s keeping the stairs stairs closed? After talking to officials, one thing has been clear- all property owners must agree and support the opening and there’s one who’s never going to consider it. “The BWS would not consider opening the trail to the public. Managing access to the Haiku Stairs is not part of BWS’s core mission. Our mission is to provide safe, dependable and affordable water to our communities now and into the future. Currently, access, safety, and community issues still remain unresolved. Thus, the Stairs will remain closed and off-limits to the general public,” said Tracy Burgo of the Board of Water Supply.
"Currently, access, safety, and community issues still remain unresolved. Thus, the Stairs will remain closed and off-limits to the general public." ~ Tracy Burgo of the Board of Water Supply
The Board of Water Supply says the stairs does not fall under its priorities and the condition of the trail might have something to do with it.
“The rocks are crumbly and unstable and that’s a phenomenon that people don’t seem to understand. It’s very slippery and very dangerous,” said Aaron Lowe of the Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Because the Board of Water owns the stairs, they don’t want to be held liable if a hiker were to get hurt or killed. According to Burgo, they feel that it is the Board of Water Supplyʻs responsibility to protect the public from doing something that’s considered dangerous or unsafe.
“Public safety is by far the most important issue. It is the reason why the Haiku Stairs are closed and off-limits,” says Burgo.
Access is also a complex issue that involves multiple landowners, there is no access that minimizes the impacts to neighboring communities. Since the access is closed, residents often hear hikers climbing fences, near their property at unreasonable hours of the night. The residents surrounding the Kaneohe access points to the Stairs have endured years of property damage, property theft, verbal abuse, and in some cases, physical harm from trespassers crossing through their properties to access the closed Haiku Stairs.
Providing legal and maintained access to the trail has been suggested to solve these issues. To hikers, it seems like the solution to make everyone happy. Partial owners Kamehameha Schools have made the recommendation to Honolulu councilmember Ikaika Anderson that proposed the reopening of the stairs, but with a different access point and only if the access was managed.
RESPONSE FROM NEARBY RESIDENTS
Disgruntled homeowners are frequently seen in the media sharing their concerns over trespassing hikers traversing through their private property in the middle of the night. As there is no clear access point to the hike, persistent hikers find a way to get in by any means necessary – provoking the anger of the nearby residents.
While working on the story, resident Ken Rose was very interested in what the Hoa Oahu reporters’ intentions were in his neighborhood. As he saw two women approach the open gate, he took a picture of them and proceeded to ask what they were doing there. After speaking with Rose, it was very clear he deals with trespassers disrupting his peace on a daily basis, and not in small numbers.
“Beginning in 2014, it’s been just masses of hikers. If you think of homeless people, some homeless people are nice. But when you get masses of them, you get a lot that aren’t. There are constant problems of being here early, making noise, urinating, leaving their trash, cars…” said Rose, who lives near the access point to the closed trail.
Rose has participated in multiple meetings called by the City Council and was supportive of a plan discussed called “Manage to Access,” suggesting public access through Windward Community College. Unfortunately, he said no land owners want to allow it.
“At this point, just please understand that we are very frustrated. We’re very concerned and less than optimistic that any solution can work that’s not going to have people through our yards, coming through here at all hours,” said Rose.
Residents have moved out due to the problems on the trail, which will make the area less desirable. There is concern that land and housing prices will start to go down because of its undesirability.
“Political powers have intervened and said these communities are very upset about it and it’s disrupting them...it trickles down to economics,” Lowe said.
Considering these factors, many people want a more permanent solution to the trail closure. The other popular option is the removal or destruction of the stairs, rendering it improbable that hikers would be able to disturb the residents nearby.
WHY NOT REMOVAL?
“The cost to remove it (Haiku Stairs) is almost the same as the cost to restore it. Community clout has really pushed the closure. They have a guard and they have signs, so if they had a lawsuit...it would have a really hard time getting through. These people went strategically at four in the morning to get past the guard...these people knew the potential of hazard.”
Annually, the Board of Water Supply spends $167,000 on security guard service, trying to keep people off the trail. As long as it is owned by BWS, customers are also paying for the services of the security guard and they will continue to until it is no longer BWS’ responsibility.
The question has come into conversation whether paying for the security guard could equal the cost of maintaining the stairs if they were open.
Since BWS currently does not maintain the Stairs, they have no estimates of what the costs to do so would entail. Physically maintaining the stairs wouldn’t be the only thing to consider either – parking, bathroom and staffing would also need to be considered.
The Board of Water Supply has budgeted $500,000 for planning and engineering a study that evaluates alternatives for the removal of the stairs. The process has already begun and that includes the development of an Environmental Impact Statement, which could take years to prepare and be accepted.
Transferring the property is an option for the Board of Water Supply, but it must be passed over to another government agency. There is no timeframe for this exchange to happen, however the transfer would require approval from at least the BWS council.
“So they said they would do a public to public land exchange, the problem is, no one is willing to sign up to do that. The unfortunate part is none of the landowners, which is a jigsaw puzzle of landowners around here, want to allow public access. It’s going to take some type of high-level public administration leadership to try to get this to work. Because that’s not going to work, people are going to hike and trespass (where there is) the least amount of resistance, and that’s the community,” says Rose.
Meetings have been held, and partial owners Kamehameha Schools have provided context and background on issues and opportunities surrounding the Haiku Stairs.
BWS has a $1 million insurance policy, which people must pay in order to get access to the stairs. However, all owners must agree.
The BWS recently initiated the process to determine the cost for removing the Haiku Stairs. The process itself is an extensive one. Environmental factors must be considered as well as the communities.
With all the factors involved, BWS says the trail will never reopen under their jurisdiction. Their response to people who just want to hike?
“There are many well maintained trails on Oahu that interested residents can legally access and enjoy.”
A list of such trails is available on the State’s Na Ala Hele Trail System at https://hawaiitrails.ehawaii.gov/island.php?island=Oahu.
- STAIRWAY TO NOWHERE -
SHIINA LOSCIUTO AND HAYLEY MUSASHI
AMBER NUNN KHAN
Web Design and Development
Social Media Coordinator
ALEX BITTER & DAVID McCRACKEN