LIHU‘E — Before Polihale State Park reopened after nearly five months of closure by the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, officials hinted there may be new rules coming to the secluded, sandy shores.
“A long-standing issue is the dangerous combination of driving on the beach and camping without permits,” DLNR State Parks Administrator Curt Cottrell said in a September statement. “Both are illegal activities under State Parks Administrative Rules.”
It was then Cottrell mentioned that, “in the future, this could be regulated via a permit process or rule change.”
This month, House Bill 120 and Senate Bill 178 were introduced as concurring state legislation tackling just that.
The proposed bills would establish a two-year, beach-protection, pilot program that would require a DLNR permit at Polihale or any beach in Kekaha to drive on the beach. If approved, the program would start in July of this year and run through the end of June 2023.
“There seems to be much alarm and concern about this bill, so we really need to help people understand the intent of this legislation,” said state Rep. Dee Morikawa, who represents Ni‘ihau, the Westside and portions of the South Shore. Morikawa introduced the bill in the House with Hawai‘i Island Rep. David Tarnas.
Under state law, motorized vehicles, including cars, ATVs, motorcycles, scooters and trail bikes, are not allowed on beaches. However, on Kaua‘i, vehicles are allowed as a way to transport people or supplies for picnicking, fishing, camping or swimming. County code specifies that driving back and forth or racing on a beach violates the code.
“Only on the Westside of Kaua‘i do we have miles of sand beaches where fishing and surfing spots need to be accessed with a vehicle,” Morikawa said. “I love fishing, and have traversed those areas, but I feel that a permit will help to educate drivers on the safe way to traverse the beach, and any violations will be means to revoke that right.”
Morikawa has been advocating for Westside citizen involvement in the legislative process, especially when it comes to last year’s actions of closing Polihale from July to December due to overuse and illegal activities. When the park reopened, new signs with rules, speed bumps and hours were added. Camping permits are still unavailable.
“Some have criticized the lack of community input, however, we all know that the community is well aware of the problem, but need help to navigate a solution. That’s why there is a bill to bring out the conversation and public participation,” Morikawa said. “With what happened in July of 2020 that caused the closure at Polihale State Park, it is imperative that something be done to prevent those types of incidences.”
There were about 380 pages of submitted written public testimony as of 1 p.m. Thursday.
“The biggest objection is the requirement to pay for the permit,” Morikawa said. “This amount will be determined by input from advocates and DLNR.”
But DLNR has a different take.
Suzanne Case, chair of the state Board of Land and Natural Resources, said the department “appreciates the recognition of management deficiencies at Polihale State Park, which contains sensitive cultural and natural resources, as well as acknowledgment of the modern history of illicit and damaging activities by park visitors.”
Case, however, said DLNR’s Division of Conservation and Resource Enforcement does not have the resources to enforce a no-driving moratorium or a permit system, as the bill would create.
“Simply put, DOCARE does not have sufficient manpower to address the large numbers of potential violators,” Case wrote. “There are only 13 officers for the entire Island of Kaua‘i who must address the full range of DOCARE enforcement duties, and all of these officers are not working at the same time. Addressing all violators on an extensive, multi-mile stretch of beach with current resources is a nearly-impossible task.”
“Piecemeal enforcement,” Case said, could create implications of “disparate treatment and create fairness issues, where some people may receive enforcement action and others may not.”
Another part of the bill would require DLNR to work with the county on the feasibility of establishing a similar pilot program for Kekaha Beach Park, which would be under the jurisdiction of the county, according to the proposed draft.
County of Kaua‘i Managing Director Michael Dahilig said the county believes “DLNR is the appropriate managing agency” to protect resource areas such as Polihale.
“We look forward to continuing to work with the state when our jurisdictions overlap,” Dahilig said.
Resident Shyla Moon opposes the legislation.
“These bills creating a pilot program to drive on Polihale and Kekaha beaches should be discussed with residents somehow before being introduced at the Legislature,” Moon said. “These two beaches are a hot and long walk. How will people be able to bring their entire families and supplies from their vehicles to the spots?”
In testimony to the Legislature, Moon brought up a number of points related to accessibility and safety.
“Elderly and handicap would have the hardest times accessing the ocean. It isn’t safe to leave your vehicle parked unattended at these beaches, especially at night. Will nighttime fishing and camping access be considered in any future plans?” Moon asked. “Please don’t let us lose our culture anymore.”
Those in support of the bill, like Blisse Lester, writes on the cultural significance of the beach.
“Polihale is a sacred place. I think we have forgotten that throughout the years. It is an area rich with history and people,” Lester wrote. “It isn’t just a pretty beach. Living on this island, being a part of its land, you should know that, but many of us don’t. Driving recklessly, destroying the dunes, has consequences. I am glad that the state is stepping in before it is too late because we were on a path to self-destruction, and no one was stopping us.”
As mitigation, Case said that DLNR is “acutely aware of the issues plaguing Polihale State Park,” and has budgeted existing capital-improvement-project funds to initiate a management-plan effort which includes a set of vehicle and transportation improvements to enhance dune and beach-protection measures.
SB 178, introduced by request by Senate President Ron Kouchi, is up for a hearing before the Senate Committee on Water and Land today at 1 p.m. More information on how to testify can be found at capitol.hawaii.gov.
Sabrina Bodon, public safety and government reporter, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.