With their dizzying vistas and lush terrain, the famous Haiku Stairs in Hawaii first beckoned thrill seekers decades before Instagram, their steps meandering across a mountain range and, at times, above the clouds.
Security guards, “No Trespassing” signs and the threat of fines have done little to deter hikers from making the 3,922-step ascent, known as the “Stairway to Heaven,” to a former radio relay station used by the Navy during World War II. Social media, critics say, has only emboldened them.
But the forbidden trail may be nearing its final step: Last week, the mayor of Honolulu ordered the stairs’ removal, following a recommendation by the City Council, because of concerns over safety, trespassing and the environment.
Officials said that the Haiku Stairs, which do not have a public entrance, are too much trouble to maintain and create a nuisance for the private property owners whose land has been overrun by trespassers. Honolulu budgeted $1 million to dismantle the stairs, which could happen as early as next year.
In a statement on Sept. 14, Mayor Rick Blangiardi of Honolulu said the community could no longer keep the stairs. “We recognize the interest the stairs have to certain community groups; however, issues such as trespassing, personal injuries, invasive species and overall safety of the public cannot be ignored,” Mr. Blangiardi said. “Fundamentally, it is inappropriate to have a high-use tourist attraction entering through this residential neighborhood, which lacks in the capacity to provide appropriate facilities or parking.” The decision punctuated a yearslong debate over the fate of the metal stairs and handrails, which some groups said should be preserved. Some sections of the stairs, which cut through mud and thick vegetation, have shifted.
Friends of Haiku Stairs, a nonprofit group formed in 1987, vowed to try to block removal, which its president called “misguided.”
“Once the stairs are gone, they’re gone forever,” the group’s president, Dr. Vernon Ansdell, said on Tuesday. “It’s unique.”
Dr. Ansdell said that the Haiku Stairs, built in 1942, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the previous December, and named for the valley below, had a relatively clean safety record. He said that concerns about liability had been overblown and that as many as 20,000 people climbed the stairs when they were open to the public and when the Coast Guard had taken over access.
Thousands of people have continued to climb the stairs each year since they were closed in 1987, according to the preservation group.
“It’s a stairway,” Dr. Ansdell said. “It’s got railings. You go up and you go down. If you use a minimum of common sense, you won’t get injured. One person died from a heart attack. You can’t really blame the stairs for that.”
Dr. Ansdell said that a majority of emergencies on the mountain involved people climbing a different trail, adding that he had climbed the Haiku Stairs 10 times.
But at a Sept. 8 meeting of the Honolulu City Council, the body’s vice president expressed concerns about liability and said that there were too many property owners involved to develop a managed-access plan for the stairs.
“As we all know, due to rampant illegal trespassing, Haiku Stairs is a significant liability and expense for the city and impacts the quality of life of nearby residents,” the council’s vice president, Esther Kiaʻaina, said. “I strongly believe that removal of the stairs is the only viable option to mitigate the city’s liability, reduce disturbances to local neighbors, increase public safety and protect the environment.”
The council voted unanimously to recommend the removal of the Haiku Stairs, a move The Honolulu Star-Advertiser endorsed in a July editorial titled “It’s time to let go of Haiku Stairs.”
“There are other, safer, legal hikes to reach awesome ridgeline views that all can enjoy,” the newspaper wrote.
Writing in the same newspaper a month later, Charles Burrows, a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner and environmental science educator, said that it would be a tremendous loss for the stairs to be torn down. He noted that $1 million in taxpayer money had been spent in 2002 making repairs to the stairs.
“Anyone who has climbed to the top of Haiku Stairs would never advocate tearing them down,” he wrote. “Can you imagine if we permanently closed down our beach parks like Sandy Beach, Hanauma Bay or Pipeline because of liability concerns? They remain open despite an average of 65 drownings in the ocean here every year.”
Friends of Haiku Stairs has proposed turning over control of the staircase to a private vendor, which would pay for security and upkeep through fees charged to hikers. Eighty people would get to climb the stairs per day under a managed-access plan supported by the group, with the yearly total capped at 20,000.
“We know that hikers will pay to go up there,” Dr. Ansdell said.
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