Haleakala Trail dispute heads for March trial

WAILUKU – Second Circuit Judge Joseph Cardoza denied a motion by Public Access Trails Hawaii on Wednesday morning for summary judgment on ownership of Haleakala Trail.

Last month, PATH filed the motion, later joined by the state, seeking a judicial ruling that the state owns the trail, which has been under the control of Haleakala Ranch.

However, Cardoza denied the motion because of the unidentified location of the trail.

The case proceeds to a jury trial in March.

“What Cardoza’s done is rule that it will go to a trial, so it doesn’t mean that he’s ruled on any of our issues,” PATH attorney Tom Pierce said after the hearing. “It just means that he was unwilling to find that we can dispose of them right now, before trial.

“That will be our next stage; to prepare for trial,” he said.

The nonprofit originally filed a lawsuit against the ranch in January 2011, arguing that the trail is a public way under the Highways Act of 1892 and was one of two main ancient Hawaiian thoroughfares on Maui.

PATH added that the ranch conceded that the trail was improved in 1905 by the state and was heavily used and promoted during the 1900s as a trail to Haleakala Crater.

“The ranch admitted they have no evidence” against the trails’ widespread use and “failed to provide any reason to continue the case further,” Pierce said.

“We already know that the trail was open and laid out. The only question is if the government did it,” he said to the court. “We have shown that the government has done it through newspaper articles and (other documents). The only dispute is the authenticity of them.”

Although PATH’s motion only sought a ruling on ownership of the trail, not its location, the ranch argued that the location determined whether the trail was on ranch or state-owned lands.

“If you are going to say a trail, . . . you need a superintendent to produce a map,” Haleakala Ranch attorney Michael Gibson said. PATH “has not shown a single map the government produced.

“They can’t just say we own the trail wherever it is, that’s not how it works,” he said.

Gibson acknowledged that the government appropriated money for improvements to a trail that led to the summit, but only $375 of the total $5,000 was used. He also said it was unclear what trail in Haleakala was improved.

“It could be anywhere,” he said.

After about an hour of arguments by both sides, Cardoza ruled in favor of the ranch.

“I do believe in this instance that the location” matters, he said.

Deputy Attorney General William Wynhoff said he looks forward to the jury trial. He had no further comment.

Ranch President Don Young, who attended the hearing alongside the ranch’s general manager, Scott Meidell, provided a written statement outside the courtroom.

“We are pleased by the court’s decision today to deny the plaintiffs’ (motion),” he said. “We believe Judge Cardoza’s ruling validates our assertion that the plaintiffs have not proven their case for ownership and that (the ranch) has a legitimate argument for claiming ownership.

“Even while ownership of the trail remains a matter of dispute, the ranch and the state continue to work toward a reasonable settlement agreement that will mitigate costly litigation for both the ranch and taxpayers,” Young said.

Recently, the state has talked about exchanging the trail, also called the Haleakala Bridle Trail, with the ranch for lands mauka of the Waiopai area. Young said the exchange would allow public access to the Nakula region, now only accessible by helicopter.

“This upper-elevation, hunting and wilderness area has been cut off from public access for several years,” he said.

Young added that any land exchange agreement “would be subject to required public review and approvals by the Board of Land and Natural Resources and state Legislature.”

“The agreement . . . would resolve ownership of Haleakala Trail while ensuring public access to the trail will continue,” he said.

DLNR spokeswoman Deborah Ward had no comment about the possible agreement and referred questions to Wynhoff.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.