Hawaii’s trails can take you through some of the islands’ most spectacular tropical environments. They can also take you through time, before the arrival of Westerners, following the footsteps of Hawaiians on ancient trails often not found on current maps.
The twin pressures of tourism and development have put those trails under stress. More and more tourists, guided by social media, are venturing beyond Waikiki and and putting a heavy strain on previously quiet and gently used forest and upland trails. And lesser-known ancient trails, legally owned by the state, often traverse private property and risk destruction from development if not properly identified.
In response, the state recently announced limits on access to the popular Manoa Falls Trail on Oahu and Kalalau Trail on Kauai’s Na Pali Coast. And last month, the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) gave $530,000 to Na Ala Hele Trail and Access System, the state agency responsible for protecting and maintaining an 855-mile network of publicly accessible trails as well as the lesser-known ancient ones that few get to see. The money will be used for trail assessment and maintenance.
Moana Rowland, the abstractor for Na Ala Hele (NAH), specializes in ancient trails, spending much of her time combing through records, tracing the ownership history of a piece of land through which a trail runs. The key to protecting ancient trails is the Highways Act of 1892, incorporated into Hawaii statute from kingdom law, which gives the state ownership of the trail, regardless of who owns the property around it, unless the state has given up its interest.
Her efforts, among others, helped open up the Haleakala Trail from Makawao to the crater, the portion of the historic trail that ran through private property. A 2014 civil suit produced mountains of historical records, resulting in a jury finding that the state owned the trail.
More recently, advocates have urged the state to open the entire Ala Loa trail encircling Kauai, parts of which traverse a 700-acre parcel owned by Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg. The state so far has demurred, saying it has yet to confirm the trail’s location.
Rowland’s office and computer are filled with the tools of her trade: pre-statehood maps and land documents, some written in Hawaiian (a language she can read), and pictures of narrow trails built out of lava long ago. She learned about Na Ala Hele as a college student who, fittingly, spent every weekend hiking. Armed with a degree in Hawaiian language from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, she joined Na Ala Hele just over 22 years ago after working for various land title companies.
“The first day at work I said, ‘How much does this job pay?’” she laughed. “I had to pick my jaw off the floor because it paid $600 less than I was making. But anyway, here I am, 22-1/2 years later. … You can’t put a price on experiences.”
Question: How does NAH balance maintaining a trail system for recreational uses with its preservation mandate?
Answer: Maintaining and improving public recreational trails is only one part of our mandate. We are also responsible for cataloging and tracking ancient trails, though this is an unfunded mandate. We work closely with State Historic Preservation Division (SHPD), which is charged with the legal authority over historic properties. We also consider effects of historic or environmental resources before deciding whether to designate a trail as a Na Ala Hele public recreational trail. … The rules that apply to our trails also allow us to limit the activities (i.e., commercial, biking, etc.) and therefore better manage any impacts to historical and environmental resources.
Q: What about charging fees?
A: Our program was founded as a way to secure public access to our public lands. Charging fees would go counter to this mandate. However, there are models, like how state parks charge for parking for non-residents, that may be applicable. There are many complications (do we own a large enough piece of land at the trail head for a parking lot, for example) that need to be considered before such a parking fee system is developed.
Q: What should be done to improve visitor knowledge of Hawaii’s trails?
A: The state Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) and the HTA have partnered to launch in-room and airline video messaging that contain public service announcements (PSAs) for a variety of platforms to inform and educate the public, locals and tourists alike, to the wonders and dangers of recreation in the outdoors. Na Ala Hele has produced a hiking safety brochure that is available online at hawaiitrails.hawaii.gov.
DLNR (and) HTA have identified the need for having a dedicated person handle social media inquiries and responses to social media users who promote unlawful, illegal or unsafe activities and/or events on public lands under state jurisdiction. Social media is the largest single purveyor of non-factual and potentially dangerous information.
Q: How do you establish state ownership of an ancient trail?
A: Let’s talk about the Haleakala Trail. We have advisory councils on each island that work with our trail specialist. … An advisory council member brought this up to our staff, (identifying) a trail we think the state might own. When I do the research, I start from the time all the lands in Hawaii first became private, in 1845, at the time of the (Great) Mahele. I do the research on all the lands through which the trail passes to see if I can document the trail alignment. Once we can do that, we identify all the different land titles that it passes through. I have to figure out if the government gave up its interest and if it didn’t — this went back to the Highways Act of 1892 — it would belong to the government in fee simple. That’s how we were able to go to court and make a claim for this trail.
Q: What are some of your biggest challenges?
A: Keeping up with development — for instance, every time there’s a development on the Big Island. Luckily, the county includes us in requests for comments so we can check to see if there’s anything historic that we need to work with the landowner on. Those are real hot because you only have a certain time to respond.
Q: What if the trail has been covered or no longer exists?
A: It depends on what’s going on with that piece of property. Is it going to be developed? If so, we work with the landowner, saying the state has an interest in there somewhere. You have to have a map. You have to document it. But sometimes, if you don’t have a map, the archaeologists can do this. They know what construction styles to look for and they can date things that we can’t do.
Q: What about the Ala Loa trail going through Zuckerberg’s Kauai property?
A: The research that we did indicated that the trail was not along the coast, but further mauka. And if you look at the old Kauai maps, I’m sure that you can see there was a trail — some of the maps may indicate there was a trail there, some don’t. And so the difficulty sometimes in the absence of records is ground-truthing it. How do you get on the land to do that? You need permission. And if you’re looking for something and you don’t know where it’s at? Like on that section of Kauai, there was a lot of grazing, plantations, so a lot of stuff has been disturbed, and to locate the original alignment is challenging.
Q: Do you have some favorite trails?
A: Oh yes, especially the ancient ones in South Kona, over by Kapua. I got in a helicopter and you look down, and you just see this network of trails. And they’re not on the map because surveyors back then were more interested in the boundaries of the lands. There are stepping-stone trails that went out — have you ever seen a stepping-stone trail? A stepping-stone trail is a trail where they took smooth pahoehoe and put it over a‘a so you could walk across it. It can go for miles.
Q: What would happen if these trails became a target of social media?
A: We don’t want that. I would hope the community would self-regulate. This happened on Halawa, on Molokai, where the community depends on the kamaaina to take the tourists on hikes. You can’t just wander around in there. That’s the best-case scenario.