Park officials plan to preserve experiences

Haleakala National Park officials are moving forward with a plan to scale back the number of commercial visitors that frequent Maui’s most popular attraction in order to ensure preservation of the park’s resources as well as “high-quality experiences” for visitors over the next 10 to 15 years.

Commercial bicycle tours will continue to be prohibited within the park; horseback riding tours in Kipahulu will be limited to one provider; astronomy tours will be limited to four providers; and road-based tours (vans and minibuses only) will be limited to four providers.

Motor coaches will be prohibited. No new commercial services will be provided.

Last month, the National Park Service made a finding of no significant impact for the plan and accompanying environmental assessment, according to a news release Monday.

Over the next year, park officials will develop competitive processes that horseback, astronomy, hiking and road-based tour commercial service providers will use to apply for permits to continue operating in the park.

“The resulting crowding and congestion have contributed to adverse impacts to visitor experience and to the park’s natural and cultural resources,” a 2012 draft plan stated. “Crowding and inappropriate behavior have contributed to a loss of ‘sense of place,’ which is often the initial reason visitors come to the park, interference with traditional cultural uses, and increased negative perceptions of the park by Native Hawaiians . . .

“It is important to provide guidance for the future management of commercial visitor services within the park and to ensure continuity of services in support of quality visitor experiences,” the draft plan said.

Other highlights of the plan include:

* All commercial tours would be prohibited throughout the park three to five days out of the year. The intent is to allow opportunities for Native Hawaiians to conduct cultural practices without interruption from commercial tours.

* Only road-based vehicle tours would be permitted to offer summit sunrise tours, and they can only park at the Haleakala Visitor Center. All other commercial services start after designated sunrise hours.

* Contracts for hiking, horseback riding and astronomy tours will be authorized on an annual or biennial basis.

* Commercial service providers will be assigned parking stalls to use at designated times.

* All commercial guides would be required to participate in training and be certified to operate in the park. The training would require up to 40 hours of training for new guides and up to 16 hours a year in “refresher” training for continuing guides.

* The number of daily trips each commercial service provider could offer would be limited. For hiking: One guided trip per day, with a maximum of 12 people, including employees. For horseback riding: One trip per day, five days a week, with a maximum of 12 people, including employees. For astronomy tours: One trip per day, five days a week, with a maximum of 12 people, including employees.

A 2009 park study found that 31 vendors generated tour revenue of close to $9 million that year. The park, in turn, collected about $567,000 in commercial tour entrance fees.

The 31 permitted vendors break down to: 19 road-based vehicle tours (including seven that offer a bicycle option outside park boundaries); six guided hiking tours; four astronomy lectures/tours; and two horseback tour operators.

Maui County Economic Development Coordinator Teena Rasmussen noted that Haleakala National Park is the most popular visitor attraction on Maui.

Rasmussen told The Maui News on Tuesday afternoon that while her office has not yet had a chance to review the newly approved plan, “our stance is we really want to see Haleakala National Park open to as many people as possible.”

She said her office will “reach out and listen” to members of the business community’s concerns as they continue to review the national park’s commercial services plan.

Park officials began drafting the commercial services plan more than eight years ago and held a series of public meetings between August 2006 and August 2012, according to the news release. In the 2012 draft plan, park officials presented the public with four options, including Plan B, which they selected to be the current plan.

Other alternatives included Alternative A, a “no action” plan that would continue to permit commercial services in the park; Alternative C would impose even stricter limits on the number of commercial service providers on group size; and Alternative D, which would expand the range of commercial opportunities for visitors, including downhill bike tours.

Downhill bicycle tours have been banned in the park since 2007 after three people died while riding down from the summit within a 12-month period.

* Eileen Chao can be reached at