Objective of plan to improve park experience

KULA – The National Park Service’s plan to cut down the number of tour bus companies allowed in Haleakala National Park from 18 to four may have upset commercial operators, but one Upcountry resident said the downsizing is “long overdue.”

“Four sounds so much more sensible than (18),” Makawao resident Elaine Bowes said during the Kula Community Association meeting Wednesday.

After the meeting, she said that residents “want to acknowledge the rights of businesses, but not at the expense of long-term residents and nature.” She said bus and bicycle tours, known as “road-based vehicle tours,” obstruct traffic down the summit all the way into Makawao town, and cause damage to the natural landscape at Haleakala National Park.

The National Park Service plans to implement a new commercial services plan over the next two years that would allow no more than four road-based tour operators inside the park.

“The whole objective of our plan was to try to improve the visitor experience and improve our ability to monitor it, and right now with (18) operators, we can’t monitor it. It’s not an efficient system,” Haleakala National Park Superintendent Natalie Gates said at the meeting. “With four operators, we can, and we’d have a lot more input into how they manage their operations.”

She added that officials are not trying to limit the number of visitors that come to the park, “as anybody who wants to visit either with a commercial operator or on their own is welcome.”

Commercial use authorizations in the park used to be available to anyone who applied, but now tour operators will have to enter into a competitive process. Successful operators will be selected based on factors relating to the business’s financial viability and its commitments to safety and protecting natural resources. Once selected, the four companies will be awarded contracts to operate within the park for at least 10 years.

The bid prospectus will be released in about a year. There will be no public comment period after a bid prospectus is completed for commercial use authorization at Haleakala National Park. Officials will publicize the release of the prospectus and any member of the public is welcome to bid on the contract.

Some residents were concerned that cutting the number of permits awarded would mean cutting out the smaller, local companies.

“You have to have the resources to put together a bid that’s going to be economically viable over the next 10 years. For a small company, that’s going to cost thousands of dollars to put together a business proposal,” Makawao resident Steven Homer said. “It’s going to be the big guys like Roberts (Hawaii) who gets this, and it’s going to be locked in (for at least 10 years).”

He said awarding such a long-term contract also stamps out future innovation.

“If I wanted to start an eco-friendly humanitarian tour business (in a few years), I would be screwed. It’s so immutable,” Homer said.

Park Service officials said it is customary for concessions contracts to be awarded in national parks for at least a decade, sometimes longer. Additionally, no preference will be given to larger or smaller tour operators in the bidding process, Gates said.

“The size of the company is not a criteria for winning the bid. As long as they can satisfy the criteria in our prospectus, there’s no reason why a small company or large company would have a particular advantage,” Gates said.

The tour operators will be required to do “a huge amount” of reporting on environmental impacts, hazardous materials and safety measures, and a contract may be canceled at any time, Gates said.

The park also plans to limit the number of permits issued for hiking, horseback and astronomy tours. Six hiking operators would be allowed (there are currently four); four astronomy tours (currently three); and one horseback riding operator in the Kipahulu district (currently none).

About 15 to 30 percent of park visitors are currently accompanied by commercial services providers, but the percentage ranges as high as 50 percent during sunrise, according to a draft plan published in June of last year.

“The resulting crowding and congestion have contributed to adverse impacts to visitor experience and to the park’s natural and cultural resources,” according to the plan.

Officials also plan to ban commercial tours three to five days out of the year, possibly on dates of Hawaiian cultural significance such as the beginning and end of Makahiki. All commercial guides would be required to participate in training and be certified to operate in the park.

Commercial downhill bicycle tours will continue to be prohibited inside park boundaries, following a 2007 ban after a series of fatal accidents. Today, bike tours begin outside the park at about the 6,500-foot elevation, though seven operators have obtained permits to drive riders up to the summit to see the sunrise before beginning the tours at the lower elevation.

A bill to make bicycle tours safer is making its way through the Maui County Council’s Infrastructure and Environmental Management Committee.

Committee Chairwoman Elle Cochran attended the Kula Community Association meeting to gather feedback on what residents thought of the bike tours coming down Haleakala and elsewhere Upcountry.

“Bike tours do not pull over properly so people get frustrated going 20 mph in an area where greater speeds are allowed, so they (drivers) end up wanting to pass on dangerous turns,” Kula resident Dick Mayer said.

The bill proposes to require permits from all bicycle tours on county or state highways, and bumping up the penalty for not doing so up from $500 to $1,000. It also offers regulations requiring a 10-minute interval between tours; no bicycle tours before 8 a.m. on weekdays; no tours through parts of Makawao or Paia town that are zoned business country town; and safety training before all rides.

* Eileen Chao can be reached at echao@mauinews.com.

* This article includes a correction from the original published on Friday, May 23, 2014. The story was incorrect in reporting the National Park Service’s plans following the release of the bid prospectus. The Maui News apologizes for the error.