HANAMAULU — There’s a need to establish trust between hunters and gatherers on Kauai and the state that manages the forests upon which they rely to feed their families.
The fact was evident at a loosely structured community meeting held Sunday at the King Kaumaualii Elementary School cafeteria in which Kauai resident Noa Mau-Espirito put his foot down on a project to repair the first two miles of Loop Road — the main access road into the Lihue-Kola Forest Reserve.
The meeting was hosted by Councilwoman Felicia Cowden and area resident Hope Kallai. Sheri Mann, with the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife, was also in attendance.
It was scheduled quickly and announced only two days before the meeting took place.
Cowden told the 20 people in attendance that the purpose of the meeting was to find common ground between them and the Kauai branch of DOFAW and to brainstorm ways to work together for the common good.
By the end of the meeting, the beginnings of some solutions were starting to form, including a possible gate across Loop Road that could be opened by hunters and authorized forest users and a website to keep everyone on the same page and to facilitate reporting of illegal behavior or dangerous circumstances within the forest.
“You’re all smart and experienced up there (in the Lihue-Koloa Forest Reserve), so help us manage it,” Cowden said to the crowd on Sunday.
Mau-Espirito is part of a hui made up of hunters and local residents that grew up in the forest and have been restoring taro lo‘i in the area with the goal of increasing local food production on the island and connecting local people to their heritage and culture.
In order to protect that lo‘i and their access to the forest, the group is demanding the contractors assigned to the Loop Road project, local company Wa’alani Enterprises, talk with them before starting construction.
“Unless the contractors reach out and talk to us, you won’t build that road,” Mau-Espirito said at the Sunday meeting, adding that he’s already filed legal paperwork to try and stop the project.
While DOFAW representatives didn’t pledge to change the schedule of construction or that the company would contact the group, Mann did exchange information with Mau-Espirito and pledged to talk with him further.
Staging for the 3-6-month, $500,000 road repair project starts this week, and construction soon will follow. The road’s condition usually requires a 4×4 vehicle anyway, even before it was heavily damaged in the April 2018 storms and subsequent flash flooding. Mann explained the project in detail on Sunday.
She addressed concerns that the road was being upgraded to allow for more traffic and said that it would only be restored “back to the way it was” before the April storms. She also made it clear that the improvements to Loop Road are not connected to commercial logging activity in the area.
Mann also addressed the August Loop Road closure, when DOFAW dug a deep trench across the road and then lined it with large boulders to physically stop all traffic. Community members filled that trench back in days after it was dug.
Mann apologized for the way the roadblock was handled and said digging the trench was a gut-reaction response to a situation she and her staff deemed dangerous.
“The road was closed verbally and with signs before we dug the trench, but people were still driving through there,” Mann said at the meeting. “We had two emergency incidents where vehicles got stuck in flooded streams. We (dug the trench) out of an abundance of caution.”
She continued: “I’m sorry. I didn’t do a good job of communicating and that’s the reason that I’m here now.”
Other issues within the forest are linked to water distribution, abandoned vehicles and apparent drug use. Mann was able to answer to the Loop Road project and Cowden chatted with community members about ways to decrease vehicle abandonment and drug dependency not just in the forest reserve, but throughout Kauai.
At the end of the meeting, the group was starting to tease some common ground out of the conversation, but residents said it wasn’t enough to meet with just Mann — they want to talk with the heads of DLNR, people like department chair Suzanne Case. Cowden pledged to work on scheduling that meeting.
Jessica Else, environment reporter, can be reached at 245-0452 or at email@example.com