Public Access Trails Hawaii is seeking answers in an ongoing lawsuit against Haleakala Ranch after being "shut out" of the ranch's negotiations for a proposed land exchange with the Department of Land and Natural Resources for Haleakala Trail.
While ownership of the trail awaits a court determination, the ranch is offering its lands in southeast Maui to the state in exchange for the trail.
"Neither the state or the ranch have informed us about what was described to me as a settlement agreement," PATH attorney Tom Pierce said Wednesday. "The state's attorney informed me of the possibility of a land exchange, and the ranch has certainly not been forthright about it. We do not understand what they're presenting to the state."
Pierce wrote a letter to state officials charging that the DLNR's evaluation and pursuit of the exchange is in violation of an agreement between the state and PATH.
Posted on the nonprofit's website, the letter says the agreement requires the state and plaintiffs to wait for the conclusion of the court case before discussing public access for Haleakala Trail.
"As we understand it, DLNR is seriously considering the land exchange and has already initiated efforts to present a recommendation for the (exchange) to the Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources," the letter said. "We are very surprised at the decision by DLNR to expedite a land exchange."
Pierce said the group has only recently become aware of the exchange talks, which began around September, and consequently held a meeting in October with state officials to explain why the DLNR should reject the idea.
"The state was supposed to be working with us, and we don't understand why they would even consider the exchange," he said. "This already shows they don't care about the trail. . . . It's bewildering that the state would even consider giving away a trail with such an amazing and cultural past."
DLNR spokeswoman Deborah Ward had no comment this week, saying the matter was pending litigation.
In a written statement, Haleakala Ranch President Don Young acknowledged the state's decision to enter the joint agreement with PATH while ownership of Haleakala Trail remained undetermined.
However, he said the ranch's discussions with the state would resolve ownership, while ensuring public access to the trail under a memorandum of agreement signed earlier this year. Parties to that agreement were DLNR's Forestry and Wildlife Division, the Na Ala Hele Trail & Access System and the ranch.
The agreement requires a minimum of two hiking events each year. Reservations are required.
Young said a land exchange would allow public access through ranch lands mauka of the Waiopai area to inaccessible state lands.
"On multiple occasions, the (state) has approached the (ranch) about securing access to the landlocked Nakula region of Haleakala, an upper-elevation public recreation, hunting and wilderness area that has been cut off from public access for several years," he said. (The region is accessible only by helicopter.) "It is important to note that any land exchange agreement would be subject to required public review and approvals by the (BLNR) and state Legislature.
"We believe this is a reasonable solution that," among other things, would "mitigate the cost of prolonged litigation for both taxpayers and the ranch," he said.
Pierce questioned how the trail would be appraised in the event of an exchange. He said he believes the land may be undervalued.
"This is not ranch land, but actually a trail and has a value to the state that is not the same as ranch land," he said.
Haleakala Trail is approximately 3.3 miles long, 20 feet wide and located above Olinda on the northwest slopes of Haleakala Crater, according to PATH officials. The trail was one of two main ancient Hawaiian thoroughfares on Maui. It was used for spiritual ceremonies and other traditional gatherings.
In his letter, Pierce said that from the early 1800s to the mid-1930s, thousands of tourists were guided up the trail, including writers Isabella Bird, Mark Twain and Jack London.
"But we're saying we should not even get to the point of a land exchange," he said. "I think the most important thing right now is the public is shut out of this process, and the ranch and state are negotiating without any sort of transparency. And we don't think that's right, especially under these circumstances."
The next court hearing is scheduled for Dec. 11, and Pierce said PATH filed a motion for summary judgment on Thursday. It seeks a determination that the state owns the trail. He said that if the court does not make a ruling, it will likely go to a jury trial in March.
To make reservations for guided hikes up Haleakala Trail, call Torrie Nohara, trails and access specialist with Na Ala Hele, at 873-3508.
* Chris Sugidono can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.