BLNR slated to study possible exchange of Haleakala Trail lands

The state Board of Land and Natural Resources agreed Friday to do an environmental review and an archaeological survey of lands before considering a proposed land exchange between the state and Haleakala Ranch involving the Haleakala Trail.

Contrary to the department’s recommendation, the board did not authorize board Chairman William Aila to negotiate and enter into an agreement with the ranch, in principle, for the state to give up title to the 3.3-mile trail, also known as the Haleakala Bridle Trail, in exchange for the state receiving a perpetual easement for a new access route to its Kahikinui Forest Reserve and the Na Kula Natural Area Reserve.

The land board approved the studies of the proposed exchange as a preliminary step and will determine the proposal’s merits after they’re completed and public input is completed, a DLNR statement said Friday afternoon.

The land exchange would allow continued guided public access to Haleakala Trail, which has been open for guided hikes on a limited basis since May 2012, while creating a way for the public to enjoy the Kahikinui and Na Kula reserves, state officials said.

The board rejected a request by Public Access Trails Hawaii to lease a portion of the Haleakala Trail.

PATH attorney Tom Pierce said that he was pleased that the land board did not give Aila authority to continue negotiating the land exchange, even if it was only “preliminary.”

“We are grateful for that,” he said, adding that the decision engendered public trust with the board that appeared to take “careful consideration” of testimony presented Friday.

Trails access proponents showed board members Friday the issues that need to be explored and the opportunity presented by opening the Haleakala Trail to reconnect an overland path from Makawao to Kaupo, Pierce said.

Only the portion of the trail through Haleakala Ranch is closed, he said. The portion through the Haleakala National Park is open to hikers.

Pierce said that the board left open the possibility of revisiting PATH’s lease proposal as an alternative that could be considered later.

Haleakala Ranch President Don Young said the ranch was “very pleased” with the land board members’ action.

“Their decision to move forward with an archaeological inventory and environmental review necessary to the proposed land exchange is a positive step toward resolving ownership of the Haleakala Bridle Trail,” Young said. “We look forward to working with the state to reach a settlement that will ultimately benefit all parties.”

PATH Executive Director David Brown said: “This may be the first time in recent history that the Hawaii state Board of Land and Natural Resources has gone against a DLNR staff recommendation on a land exchange.”

Court decisions on the now defunct Hawaii Superferry and the Honolulu rail project “mean boards have to acquire information before, not after, they make a decision,” Brown said.

Second Circuit Judge Joseph Cardoza will be asked Wednesday to confirm a trial date of March 17 for the lawsuit over the ownership of the trail, he said, noting that PATH filed the lawsuit in early 2011.

“Let the trial begin,” Brown said.

In a statement released earlier this week, DLNR maintained that the proposed land exchange was in the best interests of the public to avoid costly litigation, ensure continued access to the Haleakala Trail and to create new access routes to Kahikinui and Na Kula.

In its statement this week, DLNR called Haleakala Trail “an obscure trail crossing privately owned lands of Haleakala Ranch.”

The Kahikinui and Na Kula reserves, located on the upper slopes of leeward Haleakala, make up 3,500 acres of “outstanding opportunities for back country hiking, hunting, camping and nature experience, and are important sites for several department initiatives, including watershed restoration and recovery of endangered species, such as the Maui parrotbill,” the department said.

It noted that any land exchange would need approval of the state Legislature.

Aila said that the department’s initial analysis showed the land exchange would be the best solution for the public.

“The public would still have access to the Haleakala Trail but would also gain access to thousands of acres of reserves on leeward Haleakala that provide exciting recreational opportunities,” he said.

In the Friday afternoon statement, Aila expressed support for further study of the proposed land exchange. “We are looking for the solution with the greatest public benefit,” he said.

Written public testimony was submitted opposed to the land exchange deal.

The Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. objected to “any and all efforts by the state to relinquish the significant interests of Native Hawaiians in the historic Haleakala Trail.”

It pointed out that, “as a matter of law,” the board could not approve the land exchange before an environmental assessment and archaeological inventory survey are done.

The legal corporation said that once the studies are completed, “this board will be in a better position to judge whether giving up public land to a private corporation makes any sense. For the record, it does not.”

The legal corporation questioned the state Na Ala Hele trails program’s track record of valuing public trails, saying that the DLNR agency “routinely” recommends the “re-routing of public trails to accommodate the desires of large landowners.”

“A private landowner has no right to disturb publicly owned trails – or the ability of Native Hawaiians and others to use these trails,” the legal corporation said. “Their activities on private land must not interfere with the public’s right on publicly owned trails. Their golf balls, cattle and vehicles have no legal right to trespass on public trails. They must alter their activities so as not to jeopardize hikers. The public should not have to alter their activities to suit the whimsical desires of large landowners.”

Sierra Club of Hawai’i Chapter Director Robert Harris wrote in support of more access to nature reserve areas, but “there are better options instead of giving up public ownership and control of a stunning trail that is a rich part of Maui’s history.”

He also expressed concern about the possible precedent of trading a state trail access away “when under political or fiscal pressure.”

“Such a precedent could be damaging and start a slippery slope where, instead of maintaining or providing access to trails, the department instead trades away trails it no longer wants to steward,” Harris said. “This is contrary to the public trust doctrine.”

State Office of Hawaiian Affairs Chief Executive Officer Kamana’opono Crabbe raised concerns about the exchange in written testimony.

If the trail were in existence before 1892, OHA would strongly favor maintaining state ownership of the trail and preserving the ability of Native Hawaiians to exercise cultural practices on it.

“The established status as a public trail, with its associated history, may also elevate interest among those in our Native Hawaiian community who are increasingly following in the footsteps of their ancestors,” Crabbe said. “Given the historical and cultural significance of this particular trail as a transit route to Haleakala, the BLNR should give strong consideration to the trail’s rich cultural history before alienating the public’s future interest to this unique site.”

In a Dec. 10 letter to Aila, Theresa Donham, Archaeology Branch chief of the state Historic Preservation Division, said the trail was inspected by a staff archaeologist in late March last year and found that it is a significant “historic property” with multiple features and construction elements, including curbstones, markers (ahu), overhang shelters, petroglyphs, mounds, an additional trail and other features.

It would be eligible for listing on the state and national registers of historic places, she said, and transfer of the property to the ranch without appropriate restrictions and conditions for its preservation would “constitute an adverse effect,” Donham said.

* Brian Perry can be reached at