MAKENA - South Maui's Makena State Park could finally be in for upgrades that would add recreational spaces, landscaping, parking and public facilities, while maintaining it as a wilderness park.
It's been 35 years since the state has updated a master plan for Makena State Park, the most-visited state park on the island.
More than a half-million people visited the 160-acre park in 2007, according to the most recent count by the Hawaii Tourism Authority. The big draw is the sandy stretch of white-sand beach known as Big Beach, or Oneloa Beach.
Oneloa Beach, or Big Beach, a stretch of 3,000 feet of white-sand beach, helps attract more than a half-million people to Makena State Park each year. A lack of funding has prevented the state Department of Land and Natural Resources from implementing improvements at the popular park.
The Maui News / NANEA KALANI photo
"The reason why we haven't done an update is because of funding. It's very hard to come by," said Phil Ohta, Maui parks superintendent for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. "A master plan is what we need to start planning the uses and make it more user-friendly."
Ohta said the state Parks Division budget this year is $3.3 million, which has to stretch across all 52 state parks statewide, including the seven on Maui.
Despite the large number of visitors and residents frequenting Makena State Park, with no funding and no updated plan, the park lacks adequate parking and other basic amenities. The park has three small parking lots, porta-potties, one permitted commercial vendor/lunch wagon and just six picnic tables.
The original 1977 plan also did not take into account historic preservation of cultural sites within the park, such as wetlands, fishponds and sand dunes, Ohta said.
He said the state envisions adding more parking, restrooms, showers, hiking trails and possible designated camping sites. There's also been talk about adding an information center to educate visitors about the area's cultural significance.
"But the only way we can do it is through a master plan," he said.
Thanks to a zoning condition imposed in 2009 by the Maui County Council on the owners of the neighboring Makena Beach & Golf Resort, a draft plan for the park was completed earlier this year.
The condition required the developer to "initiate and fund a plan for the development of the State Park at Makena."
ATC Makena Holdings, which bought the resort in 2010, hired PBR Hawaii & Associates to complete the draft master plan, which calls for "preserving the unspoiled natural aspects of Makena as a wilderness park."
The plan is intended to be a guide for the Department of Land and Natural Resources to implement park improvements.
The plan has three objectives, formed with input from the community-based Oneloa Coalition:
* Preserve and enhance existing natural resources unique to the park's environs, such as wetlands and sand dune habitats.
* Emphasize Makena State Park as an important recreational and cultural resource for residents and visitors.
* Provide site improvements and facilities with deference to the park's natural and cultural resources.
Once the draft is finalized, an environmental impact statement would follow, which would require public input. It's unclear at this point who would pay for the EIS.
"Big Beach is very dear to me. I used to camp there, dive and fish a lot as a kid," said developer Stanford Carr of ATC Makena Holdings. "The idea is to keep it as natural and rustic as we all know it to be."
He said there's no definite timeline to implement any upgrades.
"What we really need there is comfort stations, and being able to facilitate that will require infrastructure - getting water and sewer lines out to that area," Carr said. "That's going to dictate how and when we can implement that."
The resort's past and current owners have been working on the plan with the Oneloa Coalition, which is made up of members of the Maui Tomorrow Foundation, Surfrider Foundation, Maui Cultural Lands, Pacific Whale Foundation and Hawaii Wildlife Fund, and Makena residents.
Irene Bowie, executive director of Maui Tomorrow, said the goal of the Oneloa Coalition is to provide stewardship and ongoing maintenance for the area.
She noted that the park is home to sensitive cultural and historic sites that need to be protected, including habitat areas for the Hawaiian hoary bat and sea turtles.
"There's so much to protect there," Bowie said.
She said the group has been brainstorming creative ways to help fund improvements and maintenance at Makena, such as having a percentage of home sales in the resort area dedicated to a fund for the park or getting the developers of planned geothermal activities above Makena to contribute toward the park.
"I think we just have to be really creative in how we think we can help to raise funds to care for the park," Bowie said.
Ohta said the department is considering charging nonresidents parking fees to help generate some revenue to maintain the park. He said the lifeguard services alone at Makena cost $500,000 annually.
State Rep. George Fontaine, who represents South Maui, said he plans to request additional funding through the Legislature.
He, too, would like to find ways for the state's Parks Division to be more self-sustaining through fees and public-private partnerships.
"I certainly will request funding," Fontaine said. "I did not realize the funding had dropped to that level."
He said a model to consider might be the Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, run by the City and County of Honolulu's Department of Parks & Recreation.
The popular snorkeling spot at one time saw as many as 3 million visitors annually before the city implemented a restoration plan and education program.
"The area was going downhill because it was way overused," Fontaine said of Hanauma Bay. "They implemented a comprehensive plan to limit the number of visitors per day and do a lot of education. You can't even set foot on the beach until you view an informational video. This has allowed Hanauma Bay, despite getting over 800,000 visitors a year, to maintain its pristine levels. I would like to see Makena State Park also preserved as a pristine area for visitors and locals alike."
* Nanea Kalani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.