Trail volunteer bucks the system

NA PALI COAST — After spending 16 months voluntarily repairing the most treacherous sections of a world-famous trail on the North Shore, 42-year-old Bill Summers now faces a depleted savings account and a court date.

These hurdles, however, hardly seem to concern him. His sights remain set on solving the challenges of restoring and maintaining Na Pali Coast Trail for future generations.

The United States Armed Forces veteran said he plans to fight the ticket he was given last month by the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources for unpermitted hunting in the more than 6,000-acre state wilderness park. But that battle is on hold for the time being.

Setting the citation aside, Summers said the critical task remains tackling the sources of erosion along the 11-mile path that is causing unsafe hiking conditions and wrecking fragile ecosystems.

“The people of Kaua‘i are losing their island, literally,” he said. “It’s a very special place, indeed, it just needs a lot more care.”

Community members from Hanapepe to Ha‘ena have rallied behind the mostly anonymous trail soldier, providing food and funds over the past year to help the former Florida stone mason carry out his self-imposed mission to improve the historic path, also called Kalalau Trail.

“We need more hunters out there, plain and simple,” Summers said. “The first step is reducing the number of goats and hogs.”

The non-native mammals loosen the top soil above the winding trail and create funnels for runoff below it. Compounding the problem are the goats that chew down the vegetative cover to a point where it dries up and dies in the summer, he said, producing ideal conditions for erosion when the wet season arrives in the winter.

The rains flush the unstable soil down the sides of the deep narrow valleys and sea-carved cliffs, packing dirt in at steep angles along the trail and dumping the remainder into the fast-flowing streams and azure ocean.

“Periods of high rain stain the ocean brown,” Summers said. “‘It’s all washing away. It’s incredible how much is being lost.”

He recently counted 60 goats within a mile radius of a hazardous point on the trail some hikers call “Terminal Traverse.”

“That’s like 50 too many,” Summers said. “Even if all the goats disappeared tomorrow, it would still take years to recover.”

With no natural predators, the populations of feral goats and pigs are spiraling out of control. And the Department of Land and Natural Resources is actually doing less to control them, he said.

The state allows daily archery hunting without bag limits at Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park year-round with a permit.

“In the past we have closed the trail for a couple weekends a year and allowed rifle hunting,” DLNR spokeswoman Deborah Ward said. “This year we are limited in being able to open public hunting seasons because of the recent court ruling prohibiting land board adjustments in hunting rules. Our only ability is to issue control permits to remove animals outside the established seasons.”

Nearly three times as many hunting permits were issued annually in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 compared to 2008, state records show. There were between 76 and 128 goats killed annually during that same four-year period, compared to 17 so far this year. The total number of pigs killed followed a similar trend, with eight killed in 2004 and none in 2008.

The state parks division is “under-staffed” and “under-funded,” Ward said.

“Our crew routinely performs trail maintenance, as needed, as they hike from Hanakoa camping area to Kalalau beach during our monthly off-season maintenance trip,” she added.

Summers, who slings his olive green pack over his lean frame with ease, flashed an easy smile in between his serious remarks at an interview last month outside Wainiha General Store. The quaint convenience store has provided a sort of home base for Summers, channeling donations and communications to him whenever he hikes back into town for supplies.

The rugged outdoorsman was setting out to bow hunt goats last month along the trail when he said a state Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement officer cited him for being out there without a permit and having a weapon on state property.

Incidentally, Summers said, the officer arrived in a helicopter that landed on a grass helipad he had recently labored to improve for emergencies. He plans to challenge the citation in district court at 8 a.m., Jan. 7, 2009.

“I’m not going to just pay the fine,” he said in a phone interview last week. “They’ve annoyed me too greatly. If they’re not going to let me do it, they’re going to have to get out there and do it themselves.”

Gov. Linda Lingle has released $2 million in state funding for a grant-in-aid to Kaua‘i Planning and Action Alliance for improvements to the first two miles of Kalalau Trail, which goes from the trailhead at the end of Kuhio Highway in Ha‘ena to Hanakapi‘ai Valley.

Summers said that amount of money could destroy the first two miles or improve the entire coastline. His expenses have averaged $1,100 a month, which does not include labor.

“I didn’t intend to spend all my savings on it, it just sort of happened,” he said.

Although well-traveled, Summers had never been to Hawai‘i. After looking at maps, he chose Kaua‘i after noticing a section in the northwest where no roads ran. He landed in Lihu‘e for his first vacation in eight years on June 9, 2007.

“I knew this would be the first place I’d go,” Summers said, referring to Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park.

After a brief outing on Kalalau Trail, he spent his first week on the Garden Isle volunteering at Limahuli Gardens in Ha‘ena to learn about native plant species. It was there that he made up his mind to extend his stay indefinitely, with the sole purpose of working to repair the rugged route.

“Native plant restoration is useless till the goats are gone,” he said.

Summers, who later met long-time trail advocates including Hanapepe resident Arius Hopman and Gabriela Taylor of Kapa‘a, said volunteers would continue to step up to maintain the path if the state would allow it.

“All it takes is a few simple tools and a lot of damn sweat,” Summers said. “There’s enough work out there to keep a small group of hard workers busy for years.”

When asked if he was aware his actions were illegal without a permit, he said he “knew better to even try to get permission.”

Hopman said a little cooperation with the DLNR could go a long way. The state’s excuse for not fixing the trail is they have no funds, he said.

“They could easily turn this thing around by legitimizing Bill,” he said. “He has spent his savings and time preserving people’s health and possibly saving lives. He’s like a zen master out there with the trail.”

Avid hikers and hunters, as well as a host of environmental groups have long-term solutions in mind for maintaining Na Pali Coast Trail.

See an upcoming edition of The Garden Island for their ideas.

• Nathan Eagle, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 224) or neagle@kauaipubco.com

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