Tuesday, May 31, 2022 By Ashley Mizuo
Ahead of a Honolulu City Council vote Wednesday allocating $1.3 million to dismantle the hotly debated Haiku Stairs, a nonprofit organization pushing to preserve them has released a survey in a last-ditch effort to save the illegal Windward Oahu hiking trail.
The $1.3 million proposed for the demolition of the stairs is a $300,000 increase from the amount approved in 2021 after the City Council passed a resolution to remove the stairs.
The city Department of Design and Construction based its cost estimate on an environmental impact statement conducted by the Board of Water Supply, which used to have ownership of the stairs before turning them over to the city in 2020. While the EIS was published in 2020, the cost estimates were based on 2017 numbers. The EIS at the time priced the full removal of the stairs at about $1 million. However, the current proposed increase of $300,000 takes into account the price increase of goods over the past five years.
A city spokesperson said by email that the administration plans later this year to begin the full removal of the stairs, 3,922 steps climbing some 2,800 feet to a ridge of the Koolau Mountains with spectacular views. Built by the Navy decades ago as an access route to cable communications sites, the trail has been closed to hikers largely for liability reasons amid complaints by residents about trespassing hikers.
Friends of Haiku Stairs said it commissioned a poll to gauge community interest in preserving the stairs and establishing a managed access plan. Market research company Lucid Marketplace gathered responses from 492 people on Oahu, with an emphasis on the Native Hawaiian community and Council District 3, where the stairs are located.
The survey found that 40% of respondents were in favor of keeping the stairs, while 29% wanted to see them removed immediately. Those in favor of removal rose slightly to 33% for the people surveyed who live in Council District 3. The rest either answered that they did not care whether the stairs were removed or they did not know whether the stairs should be removed.
After asking for an initial opinion on the stairs, the survey then introduced arguments both for an against the removal. It told survey takers that the city claims that the removal of the stairs would prevent liability for people getting injured on the hike, end trespassing for neighbors and save city money being used for security and rescue services. The next paragraph presents the Friends of Haiku Stairs’ counterarguments, challenging the $1.3 million cost estimate for the removal, presenting concerns about hikers taking alternative, more dangerous routes and threats to the environment if the stairs are removed. The survey also explained a managed access plan that would entail a private organization taking over management of the trail from the city, which would provide access to the trail without trespassing through the residential areas, limit the number or visitors and ensure environmentally safe practices.
After providing this information, respondents were again asked whether they felt that the stairs should be removed, with 51% of respondents saying they did not want the stairs removed and 26% saying they wanted the stairs to be removed promptly.
Of those surveyed in Council District 3, 55% subsequently said they did not want the stairs removed, and 32% wanted to see the stairs removed promptly.
The survey also asked those who wanted to see the stairs removed what their concerns were. The main reasons were danger, liability costs to the city, trespassing/neighborhood disturbances and invasive species. Since 2017 the Honolulu Fire Department has conducted 73 rescues at Haiku Stairs.
However, 64% of those rescues were for people hiking the Moanalua Middle trail to Haiku Stairs — the 10.5-mile hike that has become popular to avoid the city’s security measures to keep people off the stairs. In comparison, the Haiku Stairs hike from Kaneohe is 2.3 miles.
Friends of Haiku Stairs President Sean Pager pushed back against the perception that the hike is more dangerous than many other hikes on the island. “When I got to ask people about the stairs, a lot of people’s reaction is, ‘Oh, they’re dangerous.’ Like it’s like walking on the edge of a volcano or something,” he said. “The reality is it’s a metal staircase, regular no-slip steps and handrails on both sides. Much safer than hiking up on the backside.”
In 2022 there have been three rescues from Haiku Stairs; all were from the Moanalua side. In comparison, the hikes with the most rescues are Koko Crater Trail with 30 rescues and Diamond Head Trail and Maunawili Falls Trail with 26 rescues at each site.
However, that does not mean that residents who live in the area are seeing a reprieve from trespassers.
Stosh Ostro, who lives near the trailhead, said he has hikers trespassing through his property from about 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. “That’s been going on for over 20 years, and they’ve been talking about managed access and they still haven’t done anything about it,” he said. “It’s really impacting our way of life, our right to privacy. They don’t care because they don’t live there.” The city spends $250,000 a year on security for the Haiku Stairs, which a city spokesperson said is special-duty Honolulu police officers scheduled at “intermittent times each day at various access points throughout the nearby Kaneohe neighborhood.”
When asked whether the city has analyzed the cost of a managed access plan, they pointed again to the 2020 EIS. “It did not identify many of the specific operational requirements needed for this to be a viable option. Items such as a location for off-site parking, costs of said parking, other trail access, and most importantly securing City-owned access to the base of the stairs in Kaneohe,” Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s Communication Officer Molly Pierce said in an email. "Prior efforts were made to resolve the jurisdictional issues of identifying city access to the base of the stairs but were not successful.”
One main issue in the managed-access plan is ownership of the lands that lead to the start of the trail — some of which are owned by the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, Kamehameha Schools and the state.
Rick Barboza, co-owner of Hui Ku Maoli Ola, which works to plant and preserve native Hawaiian plants, operates on Kamehameha Schools land near the start of the trail. His concern, whether the city decides to remove or keep the stairs, is the amount of invasive species that have encroached on the trail, pushing out the native plants.
He saw a huge difference in the amount of native plants on the trail from when he first went up Haiku Stairs about a decade ago and when he went up in 2018 to help with the 2020 EIS. “I did a volunteer thing and went up there. And I was kind of blown away by the type of native plants and birds that I had seen,” he said. “And then when I did the survey about 10 years later, I was kind of taken aback as to how many species were no longer represented on that trail, and how much weeds have taken over in their place.”
Barboza explained that if the stairs were removed without any revegetation efforts of native plants, it would either create significant erosion or a big increase in invasive plants. “Now it’s going to be like a little waterfall ... because now there’s just this void, and then you got vegetation on either side,” he said. “So it’s either going to create more erosion and then more mudslides, or ... it’ll just get taken over, and then you’ll have this vein of invasive species crawling straight up the mountain — right up to our upper watershed, where it’s still relatively pristine native plants.” He estimated that it would take about 10 years to get the trail back to about 90% native plants.
The 2020 EIS also recommended restoration of native plants from the top down of the stairs if they were being removed.
The city did not respond in time to answer whether a revegetation effort was part of the the plan in removing the stairs.
Pager has not been able to go up the Haiku Stairs in decades, but said he hoped that he would be able to one day bring his children up to experience it. "I just hope that it’s not too late,” he said. “There’s plenty of other things like this that look dire, and then they turn around.”
The Honolulu City Council will be voting on the budget that includes the $1.3 million removal of the Haiku Stairs on Wednesday during its full meeting, which starts at 10 a.m.