Another traditional access is threatened

On Nov. 30, 2005, The Garden Island published a Viewpoint article by the Sierra Club, “Speak up to preserve Moloa‘a” concerning the changing landscape of privately owned, Conservation District land.

The permits are still pending for Moloa‘a Bay Ranch’s $400,000 plan to remove ironwood trees, grade and contour the hillside, build roads, install irrigation lines, landscape and rectify an unpermitted pump house. A proposed perimeter fence along the historic Moloa‘a Trail is also included in these “improvements.”

On Feb. 7, 2007, decisionmakers from the state visited Kaua‘i and together with community members attempted to sort out controversy over the historic trail which should have been surveyed, and a new trail alignment that the Board of Land and Natural Resources approved in November used instead.

The historic Moloa‘a Trail is a cultural asset traversing conservation land, running parallel to the coastline, along hillside bluffs that formerly bordered pasture. For generations, the trail provided mauka and makai access. Oral testimony about the trail is abundant and trespassing was never an issue before as the trail provided access to limu gathering areas, to Koolau School and other coastal destinations.

Changes in ownership triggered the public’s concern about access and the trail in the late 1990s. Kaua‘i members of the Na Ala Hele Advisory Council advocated for DLNR to research the right-of-way issue. The 1932 deed indicates that the state reserved the right to designate the location of the trail: “excepting and reserving therefrom a trail over and across this land along near high water mark”.

Herein lies the legal argument because this phrase is subject to interpretation. The shoreline is comprised of large, densely packed boulders without any evidence of a trail. Yet, the state and landowner contend it is along the high water mark. On the other hand, residents know that the trail is “over and across the land” along bluffs rising 40 to 70 feet above the shore.

Further evidence of the trail’s location is cited in two reports, with photographs, by Cultural Surveys Hawaii, contracted by Moloa‘a Bay Ranch. The 1999 Archaeological Assessment and the 2003 Cultural Impact Assessment document the trail’s historic significance. The DLNR State Historic Preservation Division concurred, stating that the trail (archeological site No. 50-30-04-1034) is to be preserved. Furthermore, the report states that “no ground-disturbing activities such as bulldozing, mechanized vegetation clearing or construction activity should occur” by the trail which is a “narrow shallow unmodified trodden path utilized both by tourists and kama‘aina.”

Although the trail has not been surveyed since 1932, several maps in the landowner’s 2002 SMA Use Permit Application to the county and their 2004 Conservation District Use Permit Application to the state clearly delineate a “coastal trail” over and across the hillside at a high elevation.

Despite the archaeologist’s recommendation for preservation, mechanized mowing repeatedly occurred over the trail in the last few years. The trail’s characteristic charm was altered and in some places essentially erased. Anyone looking for the trail was forced to improvise.

The stage was set — the landowner offered to fund the metes and bounds survey (a conflict of interest) and a new alignment resulted. The survey was conducted without public input in April 2006. Whereas the historic trail safely avoided the edge of the bluff, the new alignment was sighted more makai, near the cliff’s edge and vulnerable to erosion.

Public requests to see the survey map and photographs were disregarded. The Board of Land and Natural Resources, the Na Ala Hele staff and abstractor, and the Deputy Attorney General never came to Kaua‘i to walk the trail. But they worked closely with the landowner’s attorney. In November on O‘ahu, the board approved the new alignment as the public trail, not the traditional trail, a breach of public trust.

We hope that DLNR will foster a process that includes additional public participation. Community members, Sierra Club, and Office of Hawaiian Affairs representatives are all anxious to resolve this issue and ensure that a perpetual public easement along the historic trail is guaranteed. Thanks to the Kaua‘i County Public Access Open Space Commission and the Historic Preservation Review Commission for their interest in this issue too.

The new alignment has not yet been recorded by the Bureau of Conveyances. Anyone interested in expressing their concerns or suggesting solutions (e.g. a conservation easement from the historic trail to the shoreline) should contact Ron Agor, Kaua‘i’s BLNR representative or Peter Young, board chair.

Please encourage them to reconsider their decision and to preserve the public’s historic trail which is a valuable archeological, cultural, recreational and scenic asset for Kaua‘i.

PS — Let’s also request that DLNR reinstate the Na Ala Hele Advisory Council on Kaua‘i which disbanded in 2001. Applications for residents who are interested in serving on the council are available at the DOFAW office or by calling 274-3433.

• Rayne Regush wrote this commentary on behalf of the Sierra Club Executive Committee Kaua‘i Group of the Hawai‘i Chapter.

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