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[San Francisco Gate] The battle to save Hawaii’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ is far from over

By Christine Hitt, SFGATE

Published Jan. 25, 2023

A view of the windward side of Oahu from the Haiku Stairs, also known as the Stairway to Heaven.

Majicphotos/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Legs dangling over the side of a cliff and shrouded by a thick mist, Bill Adams and Louis Otto rested on a razor’s edge of the Koolau mountain range on the island of Oahu in Hawaii and looked down. Eighteen hundred feet below, they watched the clouds part, unveiling the ancient volcano’s amphitheater shape, embellished with its massive grooves and complemented by the green vistas and turquoise-colored waters of Kaneohe Bay. The year was 1942. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Adams and Otto were hired by the U.S. Navy to scale the mountain and create a path for the construction of the Haiku Stairs, made up of 3,922 steps that reach a height of 2,800 feet. The purpose was to make way for a secret radio facility at the top that would connect Hawaii to other parts of the Pacific during World War II. Adams and Otto did not know that their work would become one of the most contentious topics among the islands. Eighty years since it was first built, the trail has become a magnet for controversy. There is no defined entry point for a hike up the Haiku Stairs, and the hike itself is illegal. The stairs were first featured on the TV series “Magnum P.I.” in 1981; visitors were allowed to climb the stairs until 1987. That’s when the U.S. Coast Guard closed it permanently, after vandals cut steel sections and dropped them over the ridge. It’s been closed to the public ever since and was turned over to the Honolulu Board of Water Supply in 1999, but the hikers still came. Hikers ignore “no trespassing” signs, sneaking through a small, jam-packed residential neighborhood looking for a way to the stairs behind homes. In some cases, they have even climbed the fences and walls of homes before sunrise, alarming residents.

An Oct. 25, 1946, story in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin details how the U.S. Navy built the radio facility on top of Haiku's cliffs.

It’s estimated that nearly 4,000 people illegally climb the stairs each year, or around 300 trespassers per month. According to a 2020 environmental impact statement, two-thirds are visitors and military, who no doubt found their way to the small Kaneohe neighborhood via a blog or Instagram, where more than 61,000 posts have tagged Haiku Stairs. Even with security guards posted to deter hikers at a cost of $250,000 per year, the trespassing has gotten worse over time. There were 3,832 warnings and 15 citations in 2018. That increased to 4,232 warnings and 28 citations in 2019, according to the Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation. Not only are trespassing and disruptive behavior a problem, but there are also issues related to the environment, liability and cultural sensitivity from a Hawaiian perspective: a humanmade staircase leading up a mountain to levels that are considered sacred, the wao akua (realm of the gods). Though a large number of people in Hawaii and elsewhere have voiced their opinion to save the stairs, Honolulu’s current mayor and city council want to tear it down and are making plans to do so. But Friends of Haiku Stairs, a nonprofit organization founded in 1987 to protect and maintain the stairs, armed with a long list of its own reasons why the stairs shouldn’t be destroyed, is not planning to let that happen without a fight. For more than 20 years, the “Stairway to Heaven,” as it’s commonly called, has been living in a type of political purgatory — the problem almost solved until an administration changes. Ever since the U.S. Coast Guard passed ownership of the stairs to the Honolulu Board of Water Supply in 1999, Hawaii’s leaders — based on who’s in office or who’s in charge of the neighboring lands at the given time — haven’t been able to agree on how they should handle the stairs. Under Mayor Jeremy Harris from 1994 to 2005, the city invested nearly $1 million dollars in repairs, in hopes of reopening the Haiku Stairs to the public. Then, at the tail end of preparations, the administration changed. Finalizing those efforts was no longer a priority. Roy Yanagihara, former chairman for the Kaneohe Neighborhood Board, blamed the stalled efforts on Honolulu City Council members, who he believed were undermining the democratic process by taking part in “backroom politics.” “These council members are doing so in response to the demands of a few politically connected individuals who would like to see the stairs closed permanently and believe they will be able to better persuade the incoming mayor than Jeremy Harris,” Yanagihara wrote in a 2004 letter to the Honolulu Advertiser. Later came Mayor Kirk Caldwell in 2013, a supporter of managed access to the stairs. A task force was created the following year to look at all possible options. It concluded that managed access through another location outside the residential neighborhood was the way to go. Removal was considered at this time, at an estimated cost of $3 million to $5 million, but was ultimately decided against due to the high cost of dismantling, adverse environmental impacts and the loss of a potential revenue source. The Caldwell administration, similar to the Harris one, made clear steps toward managed access. In 2020, the land was transferred from the Honolulu Board of Water Supply to the City and County of Honolulu, with the aim of reopening it to the public. “I’m very pleased that we will be able to save this treasured site from being torn down,” Kirk Caldwell said in 2020. “We are working on a request for bids, and our goal is to select a private company or organization that will provide a safe and well managed access to the stairs; equally important is to relieve the surrounding community from negative impacts that have plagued them for decades.” Caldwell’s term ended in January 2021, and a few months later, newly elected Honolulu City Council Member Esther Kiaaina introduced a resolution to dismantle the stairs. It states that managed access wouldn’t stop trespassing hikers and that establishing a legal access route would be complex. It’s unclear why there was a complete reversal from the previous plan. “There was nothing, no announcement, no explanation. Just a budget item,” says Sean Pager, president of the Friends of Haiku Stairs. “It was kind of just discovered. So they’ve given explanations, but they don’t really make sense to my estimation. They’re talking about reasons that don’t hold up [under] logical scrutiny.” The Friends of Haiku Stairs had submitted a proposal to the Caldwell administration asking the city to turn the property over to the nonprofit organization to manage access for the public, removing all liability, maintenance and costs from the city and taxpayers. Its plan was to provide an agreeable access point and to escort paid groups up the stairs.

Illegal hikers have trespassed across homes to find an entry point to the stairs. Google Maps

Rumors still spread today, as Yanagihara alluded to, about political influence's role in finding a solution with managed access. Registered donors on Kuneki Street, which is close to the stairs, made $190,000 in contributions to all statewide political candidates from 2007 to 2022, with Jennifer Sabas’ household contributing $176,000. Compare that with nearby Kahuhipa Street, which donated a little over $12,000 in the same time frame. Sabas is a lobbyist who was the late Sen. Daniel Inouye’s chief of staff for 20 years and is now the head of the Daniel K. Inouye Institute Fund. She also owns a consulting firm, Kaimana Hila. “She has an enormous amount of connections from her days with the senator, and his name still means something here,” said Neal Milner, a political science professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii, in a story for Civil Beat. “That’s like a money machine.” Sabas has donated to the election campaigns of current Honolulu City Council members, including Kiaaina, chair Tommy Waters and Mayor Rick Blangiardi. The Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission sets limits on contributions made during election periods, and Sabas’ donations have been within those limits. Sabas, just like other residents, has been vocal about her stance on the stairs. She penned an editorial for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 2003 about how some residents are “unfairly scorned” for raising concerns. “We work hard; we pay our mortgages and our taxes,” she wrote. “Homes being put up for sale because families no longer enjoy living here, and the thought of hikers returning has pushed several over the edge.”

A fight to the end

The issue of saving or dismantling the Haiku Stairs involves many public concerns that people have developed passionate opinions around, whether they’re a resident or not or tied to the stairs in some way or another. “I would be heartbroken to see them torn down, and the thing that’s so hard is the Friends of Haiku Stairs and other groups, they come up with so many solutions, potential solutions to satisfy residents,” Ann Taylor, daughter of the late Daniel Caires, architect of the metal staircase, tells SFGATE. “I drive over the H3, and I just love looking at them every day,” Taylor says. “It’s like, oh, there’s your stairs, Dad.” When Kiaaina introduced the resolution in 2021 to dismantle the stairs, she cited the issues of trespassing, public safety and liability. The nine-member council voted in favor of the measure, which came with a $1 million budget, and it was sent to Mayor Blangiardi for approval. Blangiardi, who had been a supporter of managed access in the past, approved it, giving the same reasons as the council. “They have zero clue,” says Pager. “One million doesn’t even begin to cover the full expenses, and I should mention there are some very serious legal regulatory hurdles they’re going to need to negotiate, which may or may not be doable, but we’re certainly not going to make it easy for them.” Last year, the budget increased to $1.3 million, but Pager believes that’s still not enough. (A swing that hikers installed at the top of the ridge alone cost $23,000 to remove.) He estimates the cost of tearing down the stairs to be closer to $10 million. “It’s not just the cost of removal,” he says. “There are endangered species in the vicinity of the stairs. It’s critical habitat and state conservation land. They’re going to need a biological survey. … There’s a lot they’re going to need to do and spend money on to do it properly, and we’re going to make sure they do things by the books.” He is also concerned about downstream erosion once the staircase is removed and pulled out of the mountain. He would like to see a mitigation plan for that as well.

Hikers have been illegally trespassing to climb the closed Haiku Stairs, also known as the Stairway to Heaven.Laszlo Podor/Getty Images

Concerned about the possibility of additional costs, the Kaneohe Neighborhood Board passed a resolution asking for the Honolulu mayor and the Honolulu City Council to halt the dismantling until the full plan and total costs are considered, “in order for the merits of preservation vs. demolition” to be properly assessed. In the meantime, its members are meeting to come up with solutions for trespassing in the short term, including asking for access to let trespassers know that they are violating the law.

SFGATE reached out to the mayor’s office for comment on the cost and received a response via email: "Outside agencies and advocates for the stairs are certainly entitled to their opinion, but the City's cost is based on our own engineering study." The newly elected Governor Josh Green showed support for managed access to the stairs in the past. When asked to comment, Green’s press secretary responded to SFGATE in an email: “Removal of the stairs is the kuleana [responsibility] of the City and County of Honolulu. Mayor Rick Blangiardi approved the removal.” For now, the Friends of Haiku Stairs nonprofit is hoping to raise $20,000 to use toward legal defense and expert consultants so the organization can be prepared. “If you could talk to him today, he would say the stairway, you know, he wouldn’t care one way or the other,” Bill Adams’ son, the 79-year-old Brad Adams, tells SFGATE. With no mountain climbing experience, the late Bill Adams risked his life building the stairs solely to support his growing family, who has lived on the windward side for generations. Brad believes it should be taken down; however, the rest of the family’s opinions are as varied as the general public’s. Others believe it should be saved. What happens next, as history has shown, will depend on how quickly the work can be done or if a solution can be found before a new administration takes over. Now more than a year since it was first approved, the work to dismantle the stairs has not yet begun. “The City’s Department of Design and Construction is still working toward issuing the request for contract bids in the spring of this year," the Mayor’s office told SFGATE in an email. "There have been no changes in our plans for the stairs at this time.”

Written By Christine Hitt Christine Hitt is the Hawaii contributing editor for SFGATE. She is part-Native Hawaiian from the island of Oahu, and a Kamehameha Schools and University of Hawaii graduate. She's the former editor-in-chief of Hawaii and Mana magazines.

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