[Civil Beat] Trisha Kehaulani Watson: We Need to Change The Way We Engage With Nature



Skye Razon-Olds learned to climb from her ohana. When asked about it, she recalls a childhood on Hawaii island and her fondness for spending time on her family’s aina, or land.


The practice of rock climbing is not as widely referenced as hula or mele, but it makes a tremendous amount of sense as an important cultural practice. Pi’i pohaku, which means to climb rocks, or pi’i kuahiwi, to climb mountains, would have been a necessary skill to master in traditional Hawaii. Caves were a known location for Hawaiians to inter bodies and important items.


After seeing how recreational climbing often failed to take cultural considerations into account, Skye founded Kanaka Climbers, a nonprofit organization that “aims to encourage a more responsible and ethical outdoor recreational community in Hawaiʻi. We focus on providing vital, culture-based education surrounding hiking and climbing.”


This organization appears to be unique in its goal to focus on culture-based hiking and climbing. Such a group is clearly needed, as the conflict around outdoor recreation has grown in recent years.


One site that has fallen victim to its popularity is the famed “Stairway to Heaven” hike, also known as Haiku Stairs, which is closed to the public. From neighbors having to endure illegal hikers to the city having to deal with (and pay for!) adventurers installing a swing and a trampoline, what seemed clear is that the costs and burden of managing the trail were ultimately not worth any potential benefits.


The uncurbed bad behavior of hikers at the stairway just emphasizes how many simply refuse to live by the adage: leave nothing but footprints. And until both residents and visitors commit to wholesale changes in behavior that respect neighboring communities and preserve these special places, conflict will continue, and more recreational places will inevitably close.


The Hawaii Tourism Authority should be leaning in, hard, on managing visitor impacts. Both the Department of Land and Natural Resources and the counties are too often left with funding management and enforcement. Not only does this place undue burden on these agencies, but it also places an unfair financial burden on taxpayers who cover these expenses.


This is why, at least personally, I strongly support monetizing visitor access to natural sites. No one comes here expecting to eat free. Why should consumption of our natural and cultural resources be any different? And revenues from this monetization can help to support nonprofits, like Kanaka Climbers, that work to protect important sites and educate the community.


Climbing As Culture


I remember being on a neighbor island in 2019 and being shown caves that seemed impossible to reach without modern equipment. But spending just a day with Skye, it became clear that accessing such caves was not only possible for traditional Hawaiians; it was even common.


It was certainly celebrated. Queen Emma famously traveled up to the mountains of Kauai in Kokee in 1871. The occasion was memorialized by the people in mele; the event continues to be honored by the Hui o Laka who annually hold a hula competition in Kokee to celebrate the historic event and educate people about it.


Accessing, and caring for, mountain environments was an important part of traditional Hawaiian culture. Hawaiians understood their uplands to be a critical source of fresh water and forest resources. For these reasons, such mountain treks were not undertaken lightly, but rather with a deep sense of respect and responsibility.


Too often, the absence of signs of human presence or impact in uplands regions leads to the mistaken belief that Hawaiians did not access these areas. This is not true. Hawaiians were deeply mindful about accessing the mountains. Entering upland regions was done with care and protocol. Often no trace of human presence was left behind.


Climbing As Kuleana


For families that participated in climbing traditions, climbing was often coupled with particularly important responsibilities – like conducting burial practices and caring for these burial sites.


Burials are often located in cave areas. These remote locations helped to protect these burials from future disturbance. These locations were also the responsibility of families and practitioners to care for – a responsibility long passed down through the generations.

It is in this sacred tradition that Native Hawaiians like Olds operate. She is certainly not alone in having tradition and practice handed down to her, but she certainly finds herself battling a modern world which often fails to appreciate sacred spaces and traditions.


“When I climb, I feel the ‘āina. I feel my grandmother. I feel my family,” Olds said. “This is how I honor who I am and where I came from – it’s a responsibility and a blessing.” Olds has set her sights on working with agencies like the Department of Land and Natural Resources to make sure recreational hikers and climbers are educated about the spaces they visit and climb.


“Some of the most incredible sights are still present and preserved in our forests,” Olds explains. “We need to make sure we’re protecting them for the next generation. It’s simply too easy to destroy these places that were carefully created by our kupuna. With education, these historic sites that were created hundreds of years ago will be here for hundreds of years to come.”


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