Koke‘e captivates the spirit. Poets celebrate its beauty, hunters delight in its challenges, and naturalists prize its fragile collection of native flora and fauna.
Koke‘e has long provided a relaxing retreat for residents, both those who enjoy the privilege of cabin leases and those who take day trips up the mountain to hike, picnic, gather maile or simply enjoy the crisp air of upland Kaua‘i.
The 6,182 acres that comprise the Koke‘e and Waimea state parks are so valued by the people of Kaua‘i that the state must do everything in its power to listen to their will in determining the extent of human imprint on the parks’ future.
In 2001 the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) contracted the Hawai‘i engineering and planning firm, R. M. Towill Corporation, to develop a Master Plan for the Koke‘e and Waimea Canyon State Parks. As part of the process several public meetings were held, during which DLNR proposed four potential levels of development, from doing nothing to creating significant commercial additions.
While the meetings addressed the total parks experience, discussions often centered on the concerns of the 100-plus cabin holders whose leases would soon expire and were expected to be offered at public auction. When the first Master Plan draft was made available on Dec. 30, 2004, it was they who took notice.
The larger community became aware of the substantial proposed changes only after the “Draft Environmental Impact Statement: Koke‘e and Waimea Canyon State Parks Master Plan” was released in May 2006. Changes included construction of a 40-60 room lodge “in the vicinity of the Meadow;” the addition of lunch wagons and other concessions at lookouts; widening of the “travelway” to 20 feet, with up to 10 additional feet of cleared shoulders; expansion of parking lots at the Kanaloahuluhulu Meadow and at the Waimea Canyon, Puu Hinahina, and Kalalau lookouts; erection of a park entry station and establishment of entry fees; and development of new, lower elevation lookouts.
Letters objecting to what was considered wholesale commercialization of the park poured into the DLNR. Petitions were circulated opposing the plan, and pushback persisted well after the deadline passed for public comment.
To continue the dialog between the state and the community, I asked DLNR Chairman Peter Young to hold another open meeting, one that could give the DLNR an opportunity to explain some of the revisions it had made to the plan based on public input and also provide the people of Kaua‘i a chance to voice their reactions. Coordinated with community leaders Nancy Budd, Margaret Ezekiel, Kehaulani Kekua and the late David Boynton, it took place on Jan. 8, 2007 at the Kauai War Memorial Convention Center, with 500 people — perhaps more — in attendance.
Rarely has Kaua‘i experienced such unanimity of voice. Despite the state’s considerable changes — dropping the plans for a new lodge and lower elevation lookout, clarifying that the helicopter landing zone is to be used for government emergency and maintenance purposes only, specifying road widths of 18 feet, restricting bus access beyond the meadow — one participant after another testified that the DLNR’s plan will encourage a built, commercial environment rather than enhance a treasured wilderness preserve. The overwhelming sentiment was: fix roads, bathrooms and trails; keep it clean; leave it like it is.
As a follow-up a month later, Nancy, Dave, Margaret and Kehau met with Peter Young and Ron Agor, Kaua‘i’s member of the State Board of Land and Natural Resources. They delivered a “red-lined” copy of the Master Plan in which were itemized community desires for modifications to and upkeep of the Koke‘e and Waimea State Parks. To my knowledge the DLNR has provided no response to their proposed Master Plan improvements.
Today the Senate’s Water, Land, Agriculture, and Hawaiian Affairs Committee is holding a hearing to advise and consent on the reconfirmation of Peter Young as the Chairman of the Department of Land and Natural Resources. Whether he continues in that position or someone else takes his place, the DLNR must do more to hear the will of the people and, as one Kauaian pleaded, to “listen to the land.”
The community believes that Koke‘e speaks in a deep and abiding voice. The DLNR must heed its call.
• Gary Hooser is Senate Majority Leader, representing the 7th Senatorial District, covering Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau. He is a resident of Wailua and writes a biweekly column exclusive to The Garden Island.