Researcher says Haleakala Trail historically public

WAILUKU – A trail researcher and professional historian Tuesday told jurors in a trial to determine ownership of the Haleakala Trail that the path was “obviously a public trail” in historic and more modern times and that public funds were used to improve the trail over the years.

Richard Stevens, a University of Hawaii history lecturer, said that the first Hawaiians probably used the route from Makawao to the summit of Haleakala and others followed in their footsteps, noting that the trail has been the subject of writings and maps over the years.

Even in the early 1900s, people were hiking their way up the Haleakala Trail for their amusement and for business purposes, he said. Paniolo, Hawaii cowboys, took tourists up the trail in what Stevens called the “first eco-tours” in the area.

“The mountain is calling and plenty people are responding on this public trail,” Stevens said in testimony in 2nd Circuit Court.

Stevens was testifying as a witness for plaintiff Public Access Trails Hawaii, a nonprofit group that brought a lawsuit against Haleakala Ranch over the ownership of the trail in January 2011. The state has aligned itself with PATH.

The plaintiffs argue that the trail running from Makawao to the summit of Haleakala is a public way under the Highways Acts of 1892, which designated that trails opened and built by the government are publicly owned.

But Haleakala Ranch maintains that the land in question has been privately owned since the Great Mahele (land division) of 1848 and under ranch control since 1888. In opening statements in the trial last month, ranch attorney Michael Gibson said Haleakala Ranch did not make a deed of the trail to the state and did not surrender, dedicate or abandon the trail. He added that the ranch has “not been paid a penny” for the land that the state and the plaintiffs claim are public property.

Both sides have said that the trial was not about determining issues of access, liability and management of the trail.

Stevens, who was questioned by PATH attorney Tom Pierce, said Haleakala Ranch could have had access to maps that showed the Haleakala Trail before the ranch incorporated in 1888.

Stevens added that governmental entities funded improvements to the trail. Those included the Kingdom of Hawaii around 1888 and the Territorial House and Senate around 1903.

Even affiliates of Haleakala Ranch wanted engineers to improve the trail, he said.

Newspapers from 1905 to 1930 captured the public use of the trail, said Stevens, who teaches history, including Hawaiian history, at the University of Hawaii Center in West Hawaii.

For example, he pointed out that four Girl Scouts from the “Sweet Pea” troop had their names in a newspaper after hiking the trail.

There also have been reports of repeated use of Haleakala Trail with paniolo reported logging more than 1,500 trips escorting people to the summit, Stevens said.

Second Circuit Judge Joseph Cardoza is presiding over the trial.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at