Kauai Backcountry Adventures seeking permit to operate hiking, other activities on mauka lands

A proposal by Kauai Backcountry Adventures to conduct commercial and recreational activities on privately-owned land located mauka of Lihu’e, Puhi and Hanama’ulu provoked opposition from a handful of critics at a Kaua’i County Planning Commission meeting Tuesday.

The critics said the proposed 15-acre project would deprive residents from gaining access to wilderness areas and aggravate traffic conditions off Ma’alo Road.

For its project, Kauai Backcountry is proposing to use existing roads, trails, irrigation ditches, tunnels and reservoirs, according to the county planning department.

The recreational activities include kayak and tuberidng tours, off-road van tours, hiking, mountain bike tours, ATV tours and horseback riding.

Kauai Backcountry has proposed putting a staging area near the road to greet customers. Ma’alo Road is the main one visitors used to drive to Wailua Falls, one of the island’s key visitor sites.

But Avery Youn, a Kaua’i architect and a representative for Kaua’i Backcountry, said the 15-acre site has always been closed to the public and that the staging area would not be visible from the road but could be moved elsewhere in East Kaua’i if needed.

If allowed to be developed, the project, though small, will keep the land in agriculture and help support the viability of Kaua’i’s agricultural industry – a key element in protecting the island’s economy in the future, contend Kauai Backcountry representatives.

The Princeville-based company is seeking a special permit, a use permit and Class IV Zoning permit from the commission. The company is run by the Carswell family, a kama’aina Kaua’i family that operates Princeville Ranch Stables, a business that’s about two decades old.

Through a use agreement with Lihue Land Co., Kauai Backcountry plans to develop its project in three stages on the 15 acres.

Lihue Land Co. is owned by AOL-Time Warner executive Steve Case; Case is also a majority owner of Grove Farm Co. Case’s grandfather Hib Case served as treasurer for Grove Farm when the company was a sugar grower.

The land is located within more than 17,000 acres that also are mauka of Lihu’e, Puhi and Hanama’ulu and owned by Lihue Land.

The commission failed to take action on the proposal Tuesday because it lacked a quorum.

Chairwoman Abigail Santos and commissioner Gary Heu were unable to attend the meeting, but commissioners Randal Nishimura, Jay Furfaro and Sandi Kato-Klutke were on hand.

Nishimura was appointed a public hearing officer so that the commission could take public comment. The public hearing is scheduled to resumed July 23.

Kamali Kali, a Kekaha resident who described himself as a kanaka maoli, the indigenous people of Hawai’i, said the proposal would keep Hawaiians and residents out of areas they have used for generations.

“You are going to put people (mainly visitors) up there who are not locals,” said Kali, who was joined by a handful of hunters and old-time residents who said they have used the area for many years. “The company may have the land, but we got heart and land.”

Another critic, Anne Punohu, said several Hawaiian groups are expected to challenge the project and the ownership of the land.

Kaua’i resident Elaine Dunbar said the proposal suggests a “trend of shutting people” out of lands they have used for many years and that it “has got to be stopped.”

“Why is this land closed up and gated?” Dunbar asked. “Are locals undesirable? I don’t understand.”

Youn said he sympathizes with Kali’s sentiment, adding “it would be nice if we could use anybody’s land for public purpose” and “that I feel the same way about having access.” But Grove Farm Co., the previous landowner, has closed off that area to the public for years, and in the past, people were only able to get to the site with permission from Grove Farm.

“Nobody can go there now, and if they are, they are trespassing, unless they get permission from Grove Farm,” Youn said.

Related to access, David Pratt, president of Lihue Land Co., said he foresees allowing ranchers and farmers not connected with the proposal to use former cane roads to get to their properties by the 15-acre site.

Kali also said it was inappropriate to run kayaking and tube rides in former sugar irrigation ditches that run through the property.

“This kind of thing takes place in the river,” said Kali, suggesting the irrigation water could instead be purified and used for human consumption during droughts.

In a letter to Dee Crowell, who heads the county planning department, the state Land Use Commission voiced its concerns about the project:

– Kauai Backcountry has to clarify the exact acreage to be used. If it is more than 15 acres, the LUC would hold a public hearing. The county panning department is slated to make a determination on the land size.

– Kauai Backcountry hasn’t been identified as an authorized agent for Lihue Land.

– Kauai Backcountry should clarify how it will ensure public health and safety in areas around two hydropower plant located on the property. Youn said that no one will be allowed into the plants.

– Kauai Backcountry hasn’t confirmed whether the area around parts of Kilohana Crater, where some horseback riding and hiking are proposed, contains historical and cultural sites.

Cheryl Lovell-Obtake, a Hawaiian activist and past president of the Kaua’i-Ni’ihau Island Burial Council, cautioned the commission to pay heed to LUC’s concerns.

But Youn noted that before a state agency criticizes the recreational project, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources should develop a master plan for 6,800 acres located near the 15-acre site, land that has been set aside for agricultural use.

Kauai Backcountry also is proposing to build a 24 by 36 foot orientation/tack room building for equipment storage and the coordination of activities.

Also planned are stables, corrals and additional rooms for equestrian-related activities.

Youn said the proposal is the best possible use for the land at this time.

Because sugar is no longer a viable option and because other agricultural pursuits are still only being studied at this time, the recreational project can generate some income that will help keep the irrigation system operational for large-scale agricultural projects for the area, if they happen, Youn said in a county report.

The irrigation system is the “key to maintaining agricultural options,” Youn wrote.

Commissioner Jay Furfaro also said he saw it as a way to preserve agricultural use of the land.

Youn’s report also noted the project will be carried out in areas that contain reservoirs, parts of the Wailua River and two hydropower plants.

The most significant concern of the project might be the impact of kayak/tubing activities on the water quality of the ditches, Youn’s report noted.

The four ditches are the Ili’iliula North Wailua ditch, the upper Lihu’e ditch, the lower Lihu’e and the Hanama’ulu ditches, all of which contain primarily tilapia and small mouth bass.

Talapia, tucanare, small and large mouth bass and some blue gills also are found within the six reservoirs found on the property.

The reservoirs are Kapaia (Tanaka Pond), Al’i, Okinawa, DeMello, Pukaki and another reservoir.

The south fork of the Wailua River also runs though the property, offering pristine ponds for bass fishing.

The two hydropower plants, which are located on the mauka portion of the property, were originally developed to provide electricity to the Lihue Plantations mill along the Nawiliwili Stream. The plants now provides supplemental electrical power to Kauai Electric.

The 15-acre project is not likely to have adverse impacts on water resources or the environment because of its remoteness and because recreational activities will be led by guides and be monitored, Youn’s report said.

Staff Writer Lester Chang can be reached at mailto:lchang@pulitzer.net or 245-3681 (ext. 225).


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