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Haiku Stairs: $3M Demolition or Grand Restoration?

Source: Hawaii Travel News / August 8, 2023.

The ever-popular and controversial Haiku stairs on Oahu will either be demolished by the county or saved by a group of citizens. How can this go back and forth for so many years? This 3,922-step trail to the 2,800-foot summit of Pu’u Keahiakahoe on the Windward Side of Oahu has been off-limits for decades. There’s a good reason for that which we will explain.

Honolulu City Council vs. Friends of Haiku Stairs.

While the city is intent on tearing the stairs down as quickly as possible, another group is just as intent on that not happening and on restoring the stairs for a new life.

The 36-year-old Friends of Haiku Stairs (FOHS) wants to preserve and improve the stairs and is suing to prevent their removal via helicopter. FOHS claims the city hasn’t completed the required environmental impact study for legal demolition.

“The stated purpose of the proposed action is the destruction of the Haiku Stairs, an iconic and historic monument consisting of a steel hiking trail structure of over 3,000 steps along Oahu’s Koolau mountain range.” Friends of Haiku Stairs
Hawaii’s stairway to heaven.

The stairs have been officially closed for many years and it’s illegal to access them, but thousands of hikers each year still hike the metal staircase—even while parts are in very poor condition—that winds up the side of the Koolau Mountains in Kaneohe. The views from the stairs are truly among Hawaii’s best as is clear in the lead photo.

Friends of Haiku Stairs have a plan to restore access. They envision a curated and managed experience similar to Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve. This would be a fee-based reservation system and include proactive guest safety management.

The road toward demolition began years ago.

Two years before the final decision, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, which had owned and managed most of the land under and surrounding the stairs, asked for public comment to help draft an environmental impact statement. Stewardship has flipped between the board, the Coast Guard, and most recently, the city’s Dept. of Parks and Recreation.

Cost of demolition has tripled since we last reported this.

The city agency proposed removing the stairs and said in 2021 that demolishing the staircase would cost about $900,000. Well, that price has tripled, and now the total estimate is $2.6 million, and that’s before it has even begun. We won’t hazard a guess as to the actual price.

The current cost is more than $250,000 annually to provide 24-hour security to keep hikers from accessing the stairs. The agency is also concerned about potential liability and safety concerns due to the condition of the stairs. In some parts, the report noted, sections are neglected or in disrepair.

Previously, the agency had been open to transferring property ownership to another entity—public or private—to manage the land and access to the stairs.

Its important history dates back to World War II.

What started as the Haiku Ladder saw construction start in 1942, after the Pearl Harbor attack. Its primary purpose was delivering materials and people needed to build and maintain a U.S. naval radio station located at the top of the ridge. The stairs’ construction —then made of wood—was top secret. Even the Army and other government officials were unaware of it. Later the ladder was replaced with a metal modular system which was anchored to the ground with spikes.

The U.S. Coast Guard, the stairs’ manager at the time, closed the trail to the public. That was in 1987. In 2002, the city spent $875,000 repairing the stairs and had plans to reopen them. Those plans fell through however due to complaints from the neighborhood in addition to liability concerns. Signage and security guards have remained posted at the stair trail head since then. Nonetheless, hikers continue to find ways to access the Haiku Stairs, lured in part by the spectacular panoramic views and, of course, the idea of viral social media posts.

For years, the nonprofit Friends of Haiku Stairs has spearheaded alternative solutions to allow the group, which had performed maintenance on the stairs for years, to also manage public access and to limit the number of hikers who climb the stairs daily. The group proffered a detailed controlled access proposal which addressed concerns raised regarding access, trespassing, safety and more. According to FOHS, their proposal would be cost-effective, with fees covering maintenance, security, insurance, staffing, as well as a comprehensive educational program.

“Removing the stairs would be a tragedy of enormous proportions,” said Vernon Ansdell of FOHS. He said, “Managed access under a public-private partnership would be a very viable alternative.”

Controversial to the end

Residents have long complained about hundreds of trespassers monthly who climb fences and otherwise trespassed to gain access.

The Friends of Haiku Stairs, however was saddened by the plans to destroy the stairs. “It’s a great example of a vocal minority who are capable of making stuff up.” — Vernon Ansdell, Friends of Haiku Stairs.

And now, since the demolition is all but certain, residents remain concerned that there could be another onslaught of persistent hikers wanting to access the stairs before destruction.

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