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Limit access to Haena park

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Hawaii’s once hidden gems are no longer hidden. More tourists arrive from around the world every year, and global Internet communication means that every known waterfall, every swimming hole, every hiking trail is revealed to visitors who in past generations might not have even known the spot existed.

There is no putting that genie back in the bottle, but that does not mean there is nothing the state and counties can do to protect Hawaii’s natural resources from overuse and degradation.

As the tourism industry continues to expand, attracting some 8 million people to Hawaii every year, limits on the number of daily visitors allowed at especially vulnerable natural and cultural sites can preserve the viability of the places themselves, and their attraction as places that tourists will want to visit in the future.

Haena State Park on Kauai is a prime example of a place where reasonable restrictions would improve the overall quality of the visitor experience. Limits proposed there should garner broad community support.

Although it’s known as “the end of the road” on the Garden Isle, the park no longer provides an isolated, remote island experience. In August 1993, an average 353 people a day visited the 66 acre-park on Kauai’s North Shore, which includes Ke‘e Beach and the Kalaulau trailhead, gateway to the Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park. By 2011, that number had risen to more than 2,000 visitors a day, and the congestion is taking a toll.

The Haena State Park Master Plan proposed by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources takes the most obvious and direct route to mitigating the negative effects of overuse. Namely, reduce the overuse.

The plan, which is open for public comment until Sept. 8, would cap the number of daily visitors at 900 and charge separate entry and parking fees.

Fees for Hawaii residents would be waived, and the entry cap would not apply to cultural practioners, special user groups such as hula halau and loi workgroups, cemetery caretakers or school groups.

The 60 hikers who obtain valid camping permits for the Kalaulau Trail or the 30 hunters who obtain valid hunting permits also would not be included in the tally of 900 daily visitors.

All these exceptions are necessary to preserve local access and rightly put the focus on reducing tourist traffic.

A portion of the proposed parking and entry fees would go toward park maintenance and improvements, but, even more than raising money, the point is to curtail use.

The proposed entry cap represents a significant change, given that more than double that number of people visit every day in the summer now. The proposed rules would require vacationers to plan their days more carefully, to ensure that they reach the park early enough to make the cutoff.

The cap may cause some overflow traffic to nearby destinations, such as nearby Haena Beach Park. Assuming the proposed rules take effect, state and county authorities should monitor nearby recreational areas to ensure that problems associated with overcrowding don’t simply migrate elsewhere.

It is never easy to endorse proposals that impede public access, as user fees undoubtedly do. But it is impossible to deny that Hawaii’s fragile natural resources need a little rest.

At Oahu’s Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, a combination of parking fees, entry fees for nonresidents and entry restrictions — the prime snorkeling spot is flat-out closed on Tuesdays — has helped the bay recover from decades of overuse. Haena State Park is ripe for a similar solution, as spelled out in the master plan.

Throughout the islands, balance must be a guiding principle when managing Hawaii’s precious natural resources. A tourist’s desire to see someplace today must not outweigh the need to preserve that place for future generations to also enjoy.

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