Haleakala National Park officials are seeking public input on a plan that would significantly scale back commercial tour activities offered in the park, including prohibiting tours several days each year and banning motor coaches.
The plan calls for trimming the number of vehicle tour operators in the park by 80 percent, and imposing mandatory training and certification for all tour guides.
Park officials say the changes are needed to alleviate negative impacts that commercial activities are having on Haleakala's natural and cultural resources, and to restore a "sense of place."
Bicycle tours down Haleakala would continue to be prohibited within Haleakala National Park under three of four plans proposed to manage commercial tours in the park over the next decade. One alternative would allow “interpretive bicycle tours” in the park with restrictions on things like the time of day, number of tour providers and group sizes. The park banned downhill bicycle tours in 2007 following a fatal crash that marked the third bike-tour-related fatality in a year.
Maui News file photo
"A plan is needed to provide direction on addressing adverse effects that may be occurring due to commercial services," the proposed plan said, noting that an estimated 30 percent of park visitors are accompanied by commercial services providers.
The 33,000-acre national park - stretching from the summit of the dormant volcano eastward to the Kipahulu coast - is one of the most-visited attractions in the state. The park saw close to 957,000 visitors last year, down from more than 1 million visitors the year before.
"The resulting crowding and congestion have contributed to adverse impacts to visitor experience and to the park's natural and cultural resources. . . . Crowding and inappropriate behavior have contributed to a loss of 'sense of place,' interference with traditional cultural uses, and increased negative perceptions of the park by Native Hawaiians," the plan said. "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 types of commercial activities addressed in the plan include road-based vehicle tours, guided hiking, and astronomy, horseback and bicycle tours.
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.
The National Park Service studied four alternatives for managing commercial services over the next 10 to 15 years, and identified a preferred plan that would maintain most of the existing types of commercial activities in the park, while imposing new restrictions.
One of the other alternatives would allow limited downhill bike tours to resume in the park. In 2007, the park suspended such tours following a fatal crash that marked the third related fatality within a year.
Park officials are taking public comments on the proposal and an accompanying environmental assessment until Aug. 31. The four alternatives are open for comment online and at three public meetings scheduled for Aug. 15 to 17.
"Once the comments are in, (the National Park Service) will review those, and any changes that need to be made will be made, before a final plan is released," said Leslie Young, spokeswoman for Haleakala National Park.
Some of the highlights of the preferred plan (Plan B) are:
* 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.
* Road-based tours would be capped at four concession contracts, down from 19 currently, representing an 80 percent reduction. The contracts would be for 10 years versus existing annual and biannual contracts.
* Only road-based vehicle tours would be permitted to offer summit sunrise tours.
* Motor coaches would be banned throughout the park. Vans and minibuses would be allowed on park roads.
* The number of parking stalls for tours would be reduced at all times of the day.
* 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.
* The park's 2007 emergency ban on downhill bike tours within the park would remain in place.
* All commercial guides would be required to participate in training and be certified to operate in 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.
Polynesian Adventure Tours, the largest provider among existing vehicle tour operators, declined to comment on the proposed changes. The company took more than 101,000 visitors to Haleakala National Park in 2010, according to park data. About 70 percent of its clients toured only the summit area, while the remaining visitors toured just the park's Kipahulu area.
Roberts Hawaii, which took more than 18,500 visitors through the park in 2010, said limiting vehicle tours could hurt Maui's visitor market.
"Haleakala National Park is a very popular attraction, and the public rightfully expects to be able to visit it," Roy Cordeiro, Roberts vice president for marketing and sales strategy, said in a statement to The Maui News. "We're concerned that severe limitations on vehicle tours will negatively impact our visitor industry."
The company is still studying the proposed alternatives to determine the impact that the plans could have, he said. He noted that Roberts currently uses minibuses that carry up to 14 passengers.
"We are sensitive to the needs of our environment and community, and are careful to follow the park's rules and guidelines in order to ensure a pleasant, safe experience," Cordeiro said.
Implementing the park's preferred alternative would cost an estimated $573,000, which would mostly go toward labor costs to manage commercial services in the park. It is the second least costly of the four alternatives.
The preferred alternative also best satisfies the national environmental goals in the National Environmental Policy Act, according to park officials. One of those goals states that plans should "attain the widest range of beneficial uses of the environment without degradation, risk to health or safety, or other undesirable and unintended consequences."
Another alternative (Plan A) proposes "no action" at a cost of $767,000 to implement. The increased costs would go toward additional staff, more office space and increased law enforcement.
No changes would occur to existing road-based, horseback, hiking or astronomy commercial tours, but bike tours would continue to be banned. There would be no cap on the number of commercial contracts/permits awarded.
A third alternative (Plan C) is similar to the park's preferred plan but would impose stricter limits on the number of tour providers allowed and on group sizes. At $515,000, it's the cheapest of the alternatives.
Under the plan, road-based vehicle tours would be capped at three contracts. Vans, minibuses and motor coaches would be allowed on park roads, but motor coaches would be banned from the summit at sunrise. Horseback providers at Kipahulu would be reduced to one, while bicycle tours would continue to be banned in the park.
A fourth alternative (Plan D) proposes expanding commercial activities, and is the only plan that would allow bike tours to resume operating in the park.
Plan D would be the costliest of the alternatives, requiring an estimated $841,000 to manage commercial services.
Bike tour operators would be capped at two providers, and road-based vehicle tours would be capped at five contracts. Up to six providers of astronomy tours and up to three horseback providers would be allowed. There would be no limit on hiking tour operators.
The bike tours proposed in Plan D are described as "interpretive bicycle tours."
"The new tour would be a slow-paced educational experience, focusing on safety and allowing visitors to enjoy the views and learn about the park," the plan says.
Bike tours would not be allowed during sunrise hours. Tours would be limited to between 8 and 10 a.m., and group sizes would be capped at five people, plus a guide.
Bike tour operators would be required to use five pullout areas along the route and would have to allow traffic to pass, even if there is only one vehicle behind them. Brake lights would be required on all bikes.
Tour operators also would not be allowed to use anything larger than 15-passenger vans, and trailers for transporting bikes would be banned.
The nonprofit Friends of Haleakala National Park, which provided input while the plan was being drafted, said that the park's preferred Plan B proposal is most in line with the group's mission.
Matt Wordeman, the group's president, said the Friends had wanted to see a proposal that aligned with three general principles: preservation and improvement of the natural environment; respect for the host culture; and improvement in the quality of the visitor experience.
Park officials will hold public meetings on the plans from 5 to 7 p.m. at the following locations:
* Aug. 15 at Mayor Hannibal Tavares Community Center in Pukalani.
* Aug. 16 at Helene Hall in Hana.
* Aug. 17 at Haleakala National Park's Kipahulu Visitor Center.
* Nanea Kalani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.