POLIHALE — Polihale State Park has been closed to the public indefinitely, with the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources stating the reason is reckless, illegal behavior and overuse.
It’s among several State Parks areas within Hawaii that have been recently targeted for closure due to behavior DLNR labels as “egregious”.
And while some residents and Kaua‘i officials applauded the Tuesday announcement, others question whether more effort wasn’t put into enforcement of the rules prior to closing the park — a place long-known to be rampant with illegal camping and other activities.
In announcing the park closure, DLNR said it is nearly impossible to enforce park rules due to its large size and isolated location. COVID-19 has exacerbated all those issues, and public health and safety concerns, contributed to the decision to close the park.
Specific illegal activities listed include numerous complaints about large gatherings and a lack of social distancing, despite emergency orders, widespread defecation within the fragile dune system, and trucks racing on the beach and driving through the dunes.
DLNR also pointed out a recent weekend during which more than 1,000 people were camped in the state park, with only 80 legally permitted.
“Crucially, last week, the Department of Health reached out to Parks expressing specific concerns about the lack of social distancing, large crowds and defecation and unsanitary conditions at Polihale,” said DLNR’s media relations officer Giovonni Parks in a Wednesday statement about the closure.
Parks explained the activity was documented through posts on social media and DLNR staff observed and reported the activity, but no rule-breakers have been fined, cited or arrested for their actions.
Kaua‘i officials sounded off on the topic on Wednesday, with Mayor Derek Kawakami emphasizing personal responsibility and the need for the community to care for public spaces.
“Let’s speak frankly. Polihale was shut down because people were not following the rules,” Kawakami said in a Wednesday statement to The Garden Island. “And now responsible families, who were using this time to reconnect with each other and enjoy special places like Polihale, are suffering the consequences.”
He pointed out examples of the same type of disrespect he’s seen on county property, pointing the finger at “a small group of our own people”.
“There aren’t any visitors to blame this time. It’s our collective kuleana to take care of our public spaces and we have to take responsibility for our own actions and accept the consequences,” Kawakami said.
Representative Dee Morikawa said she’s been hearing rumors of a desire to shut down Polihale, and when the park reopened a few weeks ago, “it was already known that masses of people were going there.”
“I want to know why enforcement or monitoring wasn’t done regularly,” Morikawa said. “Not enough resources to enforce rules, is a bad answer, since (DLNR) is the agency to do that. If DLNR didn’t have the capability to do maintenance and enforce rules, they should have never opened it up.”
Morikawa, as well as Senator Ron Kouchi, confirmed they’re following up with DLNR on next steps — questioning the department on their plans for constructing a gate and enforcing the new park closure, as well as ideas on how to reopen the park.
“I am hopeful we can work with the administration to find a resolution to this issue,” Kouchi said in a Wednesday statement.
DLNR spokesperson Dan Dennison confirmed that there are only about 10 staff members employed on Kaua‘i to care for and enforce rules in all of the state parks — and that the department is strapped for cash and State Parks is working with limited resources.
The Division of State Parks relies on appropriations from the Legislature, significant operating income from entrance, parking, camping, lodging and concession fees – mostly collected from out-of-state visitors. Additionally, State Parks used to be allocated a very small portion of the State’s Transient Accommodations Tax (TAT) for a percentage of its funding. State Park income is flat – just like the hotel industry. As such, TAT collections and distributions have been suspended due to the COVID-19 and subsequent State fiscal crisis.
For FY 2020-2021 the legislature appropriated $6.5 million for State Parks Operation and Administration.
DLNR is currently considering access protocols for hunters, beach access and gathering, but a department spokesperson said “public health and the overall protection of the resource is paramount. The damaging and unhealthy behavior of inconsiderate and reckless park users is ruining it for those legitimate users who obey the rules.”
Kaua‘i resident Dom Acain said Wednesday he agrees with the closure of Polihale Beach Park, but suggests a switch to monitored enforcement of existing rules instead of a complete shutdown of public access.
“As a lineal descendant whose family have respected, revered, lived, fished and hunted in the area for centuries I humbly applaud and support the decision to close down access,” Acain said, pointing out the abuse to the facilities and the land. “With that said, would be workable to allow only licensed hunters to access the road to specific hunting areas?”
DLNR spokespeople said the department understands that given the length of the now-closed access road, reaching Polihale will be difficult, but the unsanitary conditions due to overcrowding and the public health crisis brought on by COVID-19 take precedence right now over ease of access.
Jessica Else, editor, can be reached at 245-0457 or firstname.lastname@example.org.