The Full Story
Stairs were never intended for public use
Neither were Diamond Head, Lanikai Pillbox or many other popular island hiking trails. Plus, in 2003, the City & County spent $900,000 to repair the Stairs in order to reopen them for recreational use. So, we’ve already put taxpayer money into making this a public trail.
Public recreational use is incompatible with a residential neighborhood
The Stairs are on empty public land, they are surrounded on all sides by empty publicly owned lands. The closest house is about 1/5 mile away. And there are roads on both sides that bypass residential neighborhoods and would allow public access without disturbing residents.
Residents have suffered too much from trespassing
We don’t have to destroy a cherished recreational asset and historic site to stop trespassing. That’s a false dichotomy. Trespassing was not a problem when the Stairs were legally open under the Coast Guard. Up to 20,000 people climbed them per year, and there were no problems then.
Need to remove Stairs to save money spent on security and rescues
Managed access will generate revenues that will cover all those costs. Removing the Stairs won’t stop people climbing the ridge, it’ll just make the things more dangerous—leading to more rescue calls, not less. Most hikers now go up the back way to reach the summit views atop the Stairs. That’s a much more dangerous alternative. There have been over a dozen rescues from Moanalua Middle Ridge in the past two years. We’ve closed a safe way up to the summit and are forcing hikers to into danger at taxpayer expense.
First responders lives are put at risk from Stairs rescues
Additional Stairs-Related Talking Points:
Cherished Kamaʻāina Asset.
For Residents, Not Visitors. The majority of hikers climbing the Stairs during the Coast Guard years when public access was legal were Hawai‘i residents—not tourists. Controlled public opinion polls today show that a majority of O‘ahu residents want to save the Stairs. Public testimony over the past two years has overwhelmingly supported this position with more than 90% of the 5000+ public comments favoring preservation. A broad array of community organizations have similarly come out in support the Stairs, including the Sierra Club, the Hawaii Trail and Mountain Club, the Engineers and Architects of Hawaii, and the Ko‘olau Foundation.
No Cost or Risk for City. Managed Access can be a zero cost, zero risk proposition for the City. All expenses associated with reopening the Haʻikū Stairs, including operational management, repairs and maintenance, and insurance would be covered through private donations and user fees. The City would be fully indemnified against liability. Surplus revenues could be reinvested in the community.
Immediate Trespassing Controls. Interim measures to control trespassing can be implemented while the details of a managed access regime are finalized. A Permitted Interaction Group (PIG) formed under the auspices of the Kāneʻohe Neighborhood Board has already identified commonsense, low-cost solutions to improve security and curtail trespassing. Similarly, steps to control invasive species and address safety concerns should be undertaken immediately. The Friends of Haʻikū Stairs stands ready to resume its kuleana over these issues in partnership with government and community stakeholders.
Removal Will Not End Trespassing:
Hikers Will Continue to Climb the Ridge. Removing the Stairs will not prevent hikers from climbing the southeastern ridge of Haʻikū Valley. Images of the panoramic vistas the Stairs afford are widely promoted on social media, and “the Stairway to Heaven” mystique will continue to stoke demand to visit this place. The City’s proposed partial removal will only eliminate the safe and easy Stairway access toward the summit, as BWS’ 2019 Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) admits: Because the City plans to remove only the Stairs modules while leaving the supporting anchor pillars bolted in place, the remnants will function as an attractive nuisance: Climbers will attach ropes to this ready-made scaffolding and scramble up the mountain. Even if fewer hikers attempt this climb, they will do so at greater safety risk, heightened environmental harm (causing erosion, spreading invasive species, trampling endangered native plants) and perpetuating the City’s liability exposure.
Moanalua Is a More Dangerous Alternative. Already, hikers have been thronging to the far more dangerous Moanalua Middle Trail. This is a much longer route to the Stairs summit with steep drop-offs and badly eroded footing.
Removal Will Increase Existing Problems. In sum, claims that removal of the Stairs will end the problems attributed to them rest on a series of false narratives. In fact, removal will not only fail to curb these problems, it will make most of them worse: Removing the Stairs will increase risks and taxpayer liability, not reduce them. It will lead to more rescues, more erosion, increased harm to native species, greater spread of invasive species, and continued trespassing.
Removal Risks & Liabilities.
City’s Current Budgeting Process Is Deficient. The estimated removal cost of $1.3 million is questionable. This contradicts the City’s own earlier estimate of $4-5 million in the 2014 Ikaika Anderson Task Force Final Report. Moreover, many legally required safeguards and mitigation measures remain unaccounted for due to the incomplete nature of the 2019 FEIS (see below). In short, the City is rushing unnecessarily into a budgetary black hole. Taxpayers island-wide will be stuck footing the bill for another poorly-planned government project.
Partial (or Full) Removal Not a Solution. The partial removal option is thus an expensive, risky suggestion that will not solve the problems associated with the Ha‘ikū Stairs and will make many of them worse. These issues need to be evaluated and addressed under the environmental review process. Doing so is legally required and will ensure public disclosure of environmental impacts, adequate planning to mitigate those impacts, and transparent assessment of costs.
2019 FEIS – Limited Scope & Outdated.
2019 FEIS – Incomplete Analysis. The 2019 FEIS also failed to fully evaluate the costs and implications of removal. For example,
Final Action Taken Under the 2019 FEIS.
Federal Permits Required for Stairs Removal. Furthermore, even if the 2019 FEIS did suffice to meet the requirements of the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act (which it does not), additional environmental review would still be required under federal law due to federal permitting requirements that removal implicates. The 2019 FEIS itself explicitly acknowledges that a Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) permit must be obtained for the helicopter flights to remove the Stairs modules. Other federal permits will likely be required under the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and National Historic Preservation Act. Federal permitting may, in turn, trigger the environmental review requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”), which would entail additional review beyond the requirements of state law.
Managed Access is the Best Option. A comprehensive environmental review is not only legally required, but it would provide an appropriate opportunity to take stock of available options. When the full costs and implications are evaluated, we are confident that the City will agree that the logical solution is legal, managed access. Managed access provides the best long-term solution to trespassing. It can fully address the concerns over the Stairs without the costs and risk of removal. It would also bring lasting benefits to the community.
Native Hawaiian and Environmental Experts. A
Trespassing, Unauthorized Access. L
Join Community Stakeholders. We hope that the City will join with us and community stakeholders to realize this vision.
Properly managed, the Stairs would generate revenues to cover security costs and the people of Hawaiʻi will be able to enjoy a world-class natural resource. There are good, new options on the table to bypass neighborhoods and avoid disturbing residents. Managed access works at Hanauma Bay and Diamond Head. Why not give it a chance for Haʻikū Stairs?
There is a community-driven process that would establish safe, environmentally sustainable, and culturally respectful access. A neighborhood board task force is already making strides to address community concerns. The Friends of Haʻikū Stairs have shared detailed managed access plans that build on these community efforts. Why is the City spending millions of dollars rushing into a destructive demolition?
There are only about a dozen residents who are directly affected by trespassing in Haʻikū Valley. Do we really need to spend millions to destroy a historic monument and cherished hiking trail just to appease a dozen people?
The City took action under the 2019 FEIS by transferring the Stairs to the City Parks & Recreation Department. Now, a new and/or supplemental EIS is legally mandated in order to consider an alternative course of action. Is the City planning to do this?
The land surrounding the Stairs is almost entirely State-owned. There is no need to cross through residential neighborhoods to reach them. Conversations with State officials reveal a willingness to negotiate public access permissions. Why not try to negotiate a sensible route first?
The Stairs are a historical monument, built through a combination of personal heroism and intrepid engineering. They made possible a communication breakthrough that contributed directly to winning the War in the Pacific. Either alone or together with other historic sites in Haʻikū Valley, the Stairs could easily qualify as a National Historical Monument or World Heritage Site. Wouldn't it be disastrous to remove this historical asset without at least exploring the alternatives?
Removing the Stairs won’t take away the panoramic view from the summit. And it won’t stop photos of that view from spreading on social media. People climb the ridge to take their selfies from the top. And they will trespass to get there—unless there is a legal alternative. Managed access is the only way to stop trespassing and to manage the demand from hikers responsibly. Why not give managed access a chance and turn the Stairs from a problem into a source of revenue?
The 2019 FEIS completed by the Board of Water Supply (BWS) was, by its own terms, a limited scope document focused on identifying options to eliminate the BWS liability. The present landowner, the City Parks & Recreation Department, has a very different mission than BWS, one that is far more compatible with reopening the Stairs. City Parks also prioritize the preservation of Hawaii’s cultural and historical heritage. Why would City Parks not want to save the Stairs?
Removal was estimated to cost $1 million in 2021; it went up to $1.3 million last year. The latest projected cost in the Site Plan Permit that DDC submitted to OCCL is now $4.28 million We all saw what happened with the rail and the runaway HART budget. Only this time we’re not even building anything useful—just spending money to destroy something that many people love. How will you protect O‘ahu taxpayers from falling into an endless money pit?
I am concerned about the escalating budget for removal. The removal budget keeps going up, and we still haven’t reached the end. Will you commit to publishing a fully detailed project budget so that the taxpayers can see exactly what is covered and provide taxpayers with confidence that the City has done its homework and got a handle on the real costs?
I am concerned that the City has not done enough planning to protect the environment from the destructive impact of removal. The Stairs are deeply buried in dirt and vegetation and are going to have to be dug out. What’s to stop all that exposed dirt from sliding down the ridge, or washing away next time it rains? How will you protect the downstream watershed and Kāneʻohe Bay from being harmed? Are funds for erosion control included in the removal budget and can those details be made public?
The Board of Water Supply plans called for revegetation of Haʻikū Ridge with native plants to stop erosion and restore the native forest. Is the administration committed to revegetation after removal? And if they don’t revegetate, how are they planning to stop the downstream watershed from being polluted by massive erosive soil runoff?
The Friends of Haʻikū Stairs used to perform maintenance on the Stairs for decades, removing invasive species and hauling out trash. Since that work has stopped, the invasive species have spread rapidly, crowding out rare, endangered native plants. Will you commit to allowing botanists a chance to check on previously identified sites of federally protected plants adjacent to the Stairs?
Past environmental studies have identified numerous challenges, risks, and legal obstacles that the City has not even begun to address. An updated environmental study is required. Impacts on endangered species need to be assessed and a mitigation plan developed. Moreover, removing an 80-year- old structure off a fragile unstable ridge-line will have destabilizing effects. Invasive species will propagate in the denuded hillside, crowding out native plants, and soil runoff from erosive collapses will threaten the downstream watershed.
The land on which the Stairs sit has been designated as Critical Habitat under the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”). The FEIS avoided discussion of this topic by claiming that the Stairs themselves were not technically included as Critical Habitat. Yet, this ignores the likely impacts of removal on the surrounding habitat, which is protected. Multiple critically endangered native species (both flora and fauna) are known to inhabit the Stairs vicinity. Some of these, such as the flowering trematolobellia singularis and achatinella tree snails, are found nowhere else on earth. How do you plan to protect the adjacent federally protected native species when the removal work is done?
The 2019 FEIS omitted a biological assessment and mitigation plan, the completion of which it acknowledged that would be required to proceed with removal. The FEIS also failed to address the impacts of removal on federally protected critical habitat. In addition, the FEIS left unspecified critical measures to control erosion and prevent massive soil runoff from harming the downstream watershed, noting only that such details would need to be developed later. Will the City share its budget for these essential components of the proposed removal project?
Removal proponents claim that the Stairs are unsafe and a liability. But there has never been an accidental death on the Stairs in 80 years—and there have been no lawsuits either. By contrast, removing the Stairs will only lead hikers to follow less safe, alternative routes to reach the Stairs summit. Why would the City spend millions of taxpayer dollars on something that only going to make things less safe?
Most rescues attributed to the Stairs are due to hikers injured elsewhere, often coming up the back way from Moanalua or bush whacking at night to try to reach the base of the Stairs. First responders actually use the Stairs to rescue hikers injured elsewhere in the Koʻolau range. Won't removing the Stairs only make things worse and lead to more difficult rescues?
Hikers in distress climbing the Moanalua route have prompted a dozen HFD rescue calls over the past two years. Taxpayer bills and safety risks are mounting. Would-be Stairs climbers displaced to Moanalua are also creating other harms, including neighborhood disturbances, parking problems, and environmental damage. Won't removing the Stairs just export the problem to other side of the Koʻolau Mountains?
Plans for the Stairs should be developed in partnership with stakeholders in Haʻikū Valley and Heʻeia ahupuaʻa to realize synergies and exercise shared stewardship over cultural & historical sites. Shouldn't we work together to create something truly special in Haʻikū Valley that could become a focal point of pride, jobs, and investment for Windward O‘ahu?
Access to the Stairs would be curated by paid guides and overseen by Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners and environmental experts to ensure a safe, sustainable experience that respects the ʻāina and cultural protocols. Hiring locally would ensure that jobs benefit the community. Surplus revenues would be reinvested in community institutions, environmental restoration, and cultural stewardship to benefit local stakeholders. Why is the City spending millions of dollars rushing into a destructive demolition?
Trespassing is the result of the government closing legal access to a world-class, outdoor experience. There was little or no trespassing during the Coast Guard era when the Stairs were open. Trespassing only became a problem when the Omega Station closed, and legal access to the Stairs ceased. Legal public access to the Stairs would remove the primary impetus for trespassing and pay for 24/7 security that would end unauthorized access once and for all. How does the City plan to fund security to stop people trespassing, particularly if they are only partially removed?
Generations of island residents have treasured the Haʻikū Stairs. They include not only hikers, but also scouting troops, educators, and native Hawaiian gatherers. Many Stairs’ supporters also live within the immediate Haʻikū Valley community. Do we really need to spend millions to destroy a historic monument and cherished hiking trail just to appease a handful of people who are badly affected by trespassing?