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Haiku Stairs Redux

Liability, Maintenance & Rude Dudes Keep Historic Steps Closed to Public

UPDATE: The following article first ran in the Oahu Island News in 2003. At the time, a battle was brewing for easy, non-trespassing access to the famed Haiku Stairs on the Windward side above Kaneohe. Since then, the guns of dissent have fallen silent. The City & County of Honolulu has been unsuccessful in its plans to have the state assume responsibility and liability for the stairs. Without state action, the stairs have fallen back into disrepair and are overgrown again. Several times we have been asked to republish the story.

By John Goody
Special to Oahu Island News

Foot by foot, Bill Adams and Louis Otto climbed their way up the east wall of Haiku Valley, leaving the rope in place after each assault. At the end of 21 days of steady work, long since invisible through the clouds to those below, they achieved the summit.

Clinging to the northernmost spur of the hogback, they looked around. They could not see more than 20 feet through the dripping mist; it was cold, windy and scary. Sitting, exhausted, on the wet ground, Adams swung one leg over the far side and straddled the mountain. The fog broke a little.

“God Almighty!” he grunted. “Look, Louis.”

The drop on the east side was almost perpendicular, all the way down 1,800 feet to the next valley beyond. They were perched on the razor’s edge of the summit ridge.

UPDATE: The following article first ran in the Oahu Island News in 2003. At the time, a battle was brewing for easy, non-trespassing access to the famed Haiku Stairs on the Windward side above Kaneohe. Since then, the guns of dissent have fallen silent. The City & County of Honolulu has been unsuccessful in its plans to have the state assume responsibility and liability for the stairs. Without state action, the stairs have fallen back into disrepair and are overgrown again. Several times we have been asked to republish the story.

By John Goody
Special to Oahu Island News

Foot by foot, Bill Adams and Louis Otto climbed their way up the east wall of Haiku Valley, leaving the rope in place after each assault. At the end of 21 days of steady work, long since invisible through the clouds to those below, they achieved the summit.
Clinging to the northernmost spur of the hogback, they looked around. They could not see more than 20 feet through the dripping mist; it was cold, windy and scary. Sitting, exhausted, on the wet ground, Adams swung one leg over the far side and straddled the mountain. The fog broke a little.
“God Almighty!” he grunted. “Look, Louis.”

The drop on the east side was almost perpendicular, all the way down 1,800 feet to the next valley beyond. They were perched on the razor’s edge of the summit ridge.

Then, for a moment, the clouds blew off and the enormous panorama of the whole region lay below them. There, to windward, the shallow curve of Kaneohe Bay glimmered pale emerald in the sunlight, bordered by vivid turquoise of the shoals. The naval air base at Mokapu seemed a cluster of white dots around the base of Ulupau.

“Pretty, by God!” said Bill fervently.

— DAVID O. WOODBURY,
“BUILDERS FOR BATTLE,” E.P. DUTTON AND COMPANY INC., 1946.

The first two pioneers reached the summit ridge of Puu Keaheakahoe in 1942 – and so began the construction of Haiku Stairs.
Today, the trail these men pioneered up the face of Puu Keaheakahoe is closed, but according to Honolulu Managing Director Ben Lee, there is “great promise” for reopening the stairs. If all goes as expected, the “Stairway to Heaven” should open for hikers to experience the windswept cliffs and beautiful views of windward and leeward Oahu within the coming year.

Opposition to reopening the Haiku Stairs has been voiced by some residents of the bordering neighborhood. The root cause of complaints, often heard at meetings, is that people cut through their neighborhood, take up street parking spaces, make noise, cause dogs to bark and generally disrupt the neighborhood. In response to these issues, the Kaneohe Neighborhood Board has formed a task force to investigate residents’ claims before the stairs are reopened to the public.

The Haiku Stairs were originally constructed so antennas – the working end of a top-secret naval radio station that would communicate across the Pacific – could be stretched across Haiku Valley. At first, the stairs were just a line of ropes hanging from metal pickets. Shortly there after, the ropes were replaced by wooden ladders and then by wooden steps. Over time, the wooden steps were replaced by the present-day metal ladders, which closely resemble a series of ship’s ladders connected end-to-end. Although the stairs have endured for more than 60 years, the remains of several sections of the original wooden ladders are still visible, strewn across the cliff sides where they were discarded.

When the metal stairway was completed in 1953, it was able to provide continuing access for maintenance to the antennas and communications control link that is perched near the summit of Puu Keaheakahoe. Today, these unique and historical structures along with the Haiku Stairs are historic properties eligible for protection under the National Historic Preservation Act.

They are in need of such protection.

In 1972, the radio station in Haiku Valley was transferred from the Navy to the Coast Guard to operate as an Omega navigation station. During that time a small and discreet group of local hikers came to use the Haiku Stairs to gain access to the ridge of the Koolau Pali. This use of the Haiku Stairs was not an issue until the climb was publicized in a Honolulu daily newspaper. Then, the secret was out.

By the mid 1980s, the Coast Guard registered up to 20,000 people a year to climb the Haiku Stairs. These hikers would enter the valley through the gate (which is now locked) in Haiku Village and park at the transmitter site or along the loop road. This situation continued until the stairs were vandalized in 1987. Three stair sections, at the steepest portions of the climb, were torn out and thrown down the mountain. After that incident, the stairs were closed to hikers. Shortly thereafter, the obsolete Omega station was closed and the Coast Guard left the valley.

The stairs once again gained a relative measure of peace, as only those hikers who knew the trails, and were willing to scramble across gaps of nearly vertical rock with only the aid of frayed, old, fixed ropes, could ascend the trail. It remained that way until the Coast Guard, approaching a land transfer to local government, threatened to tear out Haiku Stairs. A public outcry ensued to save the stairs. That protest, bolstered by the fact that the stairs are a historic structure and that the environmental impact caused by their removal would be substantial, persuaded the Coast Guard to relinquish the Omega station, with the stairs intact, to its highest-priority claimant, the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

The valley was of no direct use to DHHL as its terrain is too steep and rugged for cost-effective development. But it was a good bargaining chip for more useful land, and the city and county of Honolulu eyed the Haiku Valley as a mountain park. Due to the expectation of a land exchange with DHHL, the City of Honolulu appropriated and spent over $800,000 to repair the stairs. The newly improved stairs were expected to become one of the focal points of a nature and cultural preserve in valley. The repair to the stairs proceeded on schedule – not so did the negotiations for a land exchange, or for temporary access to the stairs through the Hope Chapel.

Once repairs were completed, hikers, by word of mouth and news articles, returned. Lacking a designated parking area or trail access, they began routing through neighborhoods and climbing fences erected to keep them out – thus, the seeds of yet another community dispute were sewn.

While some of the neighbors seemed to take it in stride, a small group of residents in the Hokulele subdivision were angered that hikers used the neighborhood as a trailhead. A few even began calling for complete removal of stairs and extended their objections to the creation of a park in the valley. Trespassing hikers, it seems, have created a sentiment among some to fight anything that would bring other people into the neighborhood. Although security guards now keep the majority of trespassing hikers out, that sentiment unfortunately lingers among a few neighborhood residents.
Where do we go from here?

Twenty years ago, before the Hokulele subdivision was constructed, access to Haiku Stairs was through the Coast Guard Station in Haiku Valley.
In that period and since, when many trespassing hikers have made the climb, no serious injuries have been reported. This is a far better safety record than many of our beach parks and other mountain trails. The Haiku Stairs are a jewel in the crown of Oahu’s outdoor environment. They have brought inspiration to untold climbers. They teach the value of perseverance, of setting goals and reaching them by taking one step at a time. They teach the value of physical fitness, they teach us about history and geology and of Hawaii’s unique plant life. More than just a recreational and inspirational resource, the stairs are an educational tool of great value.

No one disputes that residents have a right to peace and quiet in their community. Fortunately, there is a way to accomplish this by restoring appropriate public access to the Haiku Stairs.

Residents do not have the right to close public access to mountain lands and trails because they do not want other citizens to travel through their community on public roads. Throughout Oahu, access to mountains and beaches is gained through neighboring communities. We go to the beach in Kohala, Lanikai, and Kailua by parking in neighborhoods and walking paths between houses. Nearly every mountain park in the Koolau Mountains is reached through a neighborhood, from Aiea Heights to Mauna Lua Valley and Kuliouou. Haiku Valley is no different; in Hawaii, mountain lands are not the private preserve of those privileged to live at their edges.

The number of people who can use the Haiku Stairs is limited by the physical size of the stairs themselves. Under proper management, 100 people a day would be a reasonable number of hikers to ascend the stairs, although past records indicate the number of actually hikers would be substantially less. Having too many hikers on the trail would not only be impractical, it would adversely affect the climbing experience and potentially damage the stairs and the surrounding environment. This small number of hikers (spread over an entire day), along with adequate parking and management in place, would not create a problem passing through the neighborhood. It certainly did not in the past.

We need to work together as a community to provide safe, legal access to Haiku Stairs. To accomplish this, we also need to work with renewed energy on the land exchange for Haiku Valley that would enable a cultural and natural preserve there, and to provide managed access for Haiku Stairs.

As of press time, the Kaneohe Neighborhood Board’s Task Force proposal is to use a parking area at the Windward Community College, and access the stairs by following a fenced pathway bordering the state hospital to the H-3 service road, which leads to the bottom of the Haiku Stairs. This initiative, which does not address access into Haiku Valley, answers many issues raised by residents. Likewise, consideration should be given to use of Haiku Road for access into Haiku Valley via the Omega Station gate, as was done in the past. This suggestion avoids using roads inside Haiku Village, and Haiku Road could be gated at the bottom to control access. Measures such as these, combined with effective control and management of the stairs, continued discouragement of trespassing and public education, will work.

The alternative – to close Haiku Stairs and the Haiku Valley – is simply short sighted and anger-driven. Rather than solving the trespassing problem, it will only prolong it and provoke a destructive fight within the community. It will also leave open the possible for future economic uses of the Haiku Valley that are potentially far worse for the community than a passive natural preserve and park.

The solution to all of this is there to be had, we must work together as a community now, and do it the right way.

John Goody is the president of the Friends of Haiku Stairs and a long-time windward resident. He is a retired U.S. Marine, and retired Vice President of the consulting firm of Belt Collins. Formerly a resident of Haiku Village, he and his family have been climbing Haiku Stairs since 1977.

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October 2014
Aloha!