BY MICHELLE BRODER VAN DYKE KANEOHE
PUBLISHED 11:00 AM ET JAN. 22, 2023
The Haiku Stairs, also known as Stairway to Heaven, is an iconic hike that leads those who dare to climb its nearly 4,000 stairs into one of the highest peaks of the Koolau Mountains. However, it has been shrouded in controversy and is currently slated to be demolished.
History of the stairs
Wooden stairs were originally built after Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941 in order to ascend the Koolau Mountains, where a radio station was built.
“The stairs were built right after Pearl Harbor, when the Navy suddenly realized that they had this war in the Pacific that they were not prepared for and needed a way to communicate across the biggest ocean on the planet,” said Sean Pager, who is the president of the Friends of Haiku Stairs, an organization that is fighting against the removal of the stairs. “They didn’t have a transmitter powerful enough to send radio signals that far, so they decided they needed to build something.”
Pager told Spectrum News the radio station was placed on a ridge above Haiku Valley because it is naturally shaped like a giant satellite dish.
“The shape of the valley itself is an even amphitheater, which allowed them to build this super transmitter that was powerful enough to a submarine anchored in Tokyo Bay,” said Pager.
After World War II, the Navy transferred the radio station to the Coast Guard.
Over the years, the stairs experienced some changes. Metal replaced the wood. Ramps were added. They also started to attract hikers.
At first, the Coast Guard welcomed hikers to the stairs. However, in 1987, the Coast Guard officially closed the trail to visitors, citing vandalism and littering.
“When the Coast Guard closed the station, they transferred the land, and it got divided between City and State,” said Pager. “And suddenly there was no legal access, so people who wanted to climb the stairs found unofficial ways of getting there. It wasn’t really too much of an issue until the volume kind of increased.”
Pager said the popularity of the stairs skyrocketed after they were featured in an episode of the original “Magnum P.I.” With social media, the Haiku Stairs has basically gone viral.
Where things stand today
As the stairs' popularity has grown, residents living in Haiku Valley started complaining about hikers trespassing through their properties to access the hike.
In 1999, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply took over the land where the stairs reside. In 2020, they submitted an Environmental Impact Statement that recommended removing the stairs.
“A lot of the hikers want to be there during sunrise, so it requires them to start their hike at 2 or 3 a.m.,” said Robert Morita, the former executive services officer for the Board of Water Supply.
Morita said neighbors would complain daily about the trespassers.
“I had people tell me they could hear voices right outside their window,” said Morita.
Former Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell vowed to keep the stairs, so the City took ownership of the land in July 2021.
However, in June 2022, Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi and the City Council said they would remove the stairs. In the Fiscal Year 2023 budget, $1.3 million was appropriated for the stairs' removal.
The City estimates it will take two years to remove the stairs.
Along with neighborhood complaints, Blangiardi cited safety concerns as a major reason to remove the stairs.
“As we looked into it, I began to understand the liabilities of the situation, the trespassing, the invasive species, and just a whole lot of other things. This is the right thing to do, and we’re going to do it,” Blangiardi said at the time.
Just last week, the Honolulu Fire Department rescued a lost hiker near the Haiku Stairs, according to our news partner, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
However, Chris Dacus, who supports maintaining the stairs, said Blangiardi “is wrong on all accounts.”
“The safety record is undisputed: zero accidental deaths in 80 years,” Dacus said. “(The Board of Water Supply) admitted in the (Environmental Impact Statement) that they were never sued. … The 800-pound gorilla in the room no one is talking about is that removal will not eliminate trespassing. In fact, it may increase.”
In 2021, Haiku Stairs saw three rescues. But there is another way to hike up the ridge to get to the radio station, which is legal, albeit more treacherous, and it had 12 rescues in 2021.
The Friends of Haiku advocate for managed access, but it still has many obstacles, including the multiple land owners who control the surrounding land.
“Managed access is simply a system of providing a legal way for the public to have access to the stairs, but also regulating and having some common sense limits, so people aren’t going there at inappropriate hours or during conditions when it’s unsafe,” said Pager.
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