comscore Keep lava viewing safe, organized
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Keep lava viewing safe, organized

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Kilauea’s Puu Oo vent in the East Rift Zone has been churning out lava continuously for 35 years, adding about 500 acres of land to Hawaii island. Opportunity to explore awe-inspiring stretches of an active volcano has long served as a draw for visitors and residents alike.

Since the early 1970s, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has routinely seen annual totals of more than 1 million recreation visitors. In 2017, it crossed the 2 million mark for the first time, with visitors spending an estimated $166 million in “local gateway” areas on everything from gas and transportation to groceries and restaurants as well as recreation, retail and hotels, according to a recent National Park System report.

From a perspective focused solely on tourism, the rift zone’s current geology-in-action show is understandably frustrating. Two-thirds of the park has been closed since May 11 due to damaging earthquakes, corrosive volcanic ash and explosions from Halemaumau, the summit crater. That adds up to an daily economic loss of $455,000, according to a National Park Service estimate.

County, state and visitor industry officials should push forward with discussions on opening up areas to public viewing of the rare burst of two eruption types — flows and lava-spewing fountains. While sorting through options, officials should stress environmental protection and rural road safety issues — looking to Mauna Kea summit’s restrictive visitation policies as a guide.

In the absence of viewing areas, we can expect to see more people poking around sites where public access is now denied due to the eruption — raising safety risks for themselves and first-responders. Linked to that is the potential for siphoning resources from critical needs in communities where a total of some 600 homes have been consumed.

Rightly pointing out that any new viewing area should aim to recoup tourism-related losses while steering clear of gawking at property destruction, Ross Birch, Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau executive director, said: “We don’t want people watching people’s houses burning, out of respect for privacy and safety concerns. On the other hand, history is being made, and we know that people want to watch” the science on display in this latest reshaping of landscape that spans 10 square miles.

Media attention highlighting fiery fissures and rising ash plumes is generating buzz that includes the canceling of travel plans in the islands due to volcano-related jitters, and an uptick in travelers intent on seizing what could be a fleeting opportunity to witness a high-drama lava — as there’s no pinpointing when the flow will stop.

Last week, Gov. David Ige signed a letter of agreement releasing $12 million for Hawaii County’s ongoing emergency response, noting mounting costs for police, firefighter and public works overtime. Also in the works is a $500,000 emergency marketing infusion from the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

This closure of much of Volcanoes National Park is already eclipsing its last major shuttering, which was due to a 2013 federal government shutdown that closed all national parks for 16 days.

This time around, the park’s main areas will remain closed as long as safety threats linger. There’s also a daunting list of repairs to contend with. Hundreds of shallow earthquakes beneath the summit have damaged at least three park buildings, fractured park roads and snapped water lines. And tied to the necessity of closure is the already substantial hit to visitor traffic. It raises economic red flags, including some pertaining to the status of more than 2,000 tourism-dependent jobs in gateway areas.

Nearly six weeks have passed since Civil Defense personnel closed roads around the Leilani Estates and launched evacuation efforts. Now emerging is the challenge of a delicate balance that includes supporting communities coping with damages and dangers, while promoting the islands as a safe travel destination.

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>> Residents feel safe despite lava but chafe at government controls
>> Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim loses home to lava
>> Kilauea dashes Oahu newlyweds’ dreams
>> Website to centralize Big Island air quality reporting
>> Kilauea eruption harms up to half of Malama Ki forest reserve
>> Volcanoes National Park’s most important facility damaged by quake
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