The state Department of Land and Natural Resources is seeking ownership of Haleakala Trail this week, after filing a motion in conjunction with Public Access Trails Hawaii.
The joint motion filed Nov. 30 maintains that the state owns the trail and public ownership should be confirmed as a matter of law during a hearing scheduled Wednesday in 2nd Circuit Court. Haleakala Ranch has had control of the trail, and its ownership has been in dispute.
"The state believes it owns the trail under Hawaii law and continues to act consistent with that belief," DLNR spokeswoman Deborah Ward said in an email Friday.
PATH had already filed a motion for summary judgment Nov. 20. It asked the court to recognize state ownership of the trail, but because of recent talks of a land exchange between the state and the ranch, the nonprofit has become wary of the state's intentions.
"From what I heard, (the state) is very interested in the land swap. . . . We really don't understand why they're doing it," PATH attorney Tom Pierce said Saturday. "They're essentially joining us to prove up ownership, but on the other hand they're basically saying we have the right to trade it away."
In a written statement last month, Haleakala Ranch President Don Young said the ranch could possibly exchange lands mauka of the Waiopai area, which would allow public access to inaccessible state lands in the Nakula region of Haleakala.
Now, the region is accessible only by helicopter.
Although state officials have said upgrading and maintaining the trail would take "considerable state resources," PATH officials believe the land is being undervalued as ranchland.
PATH claims the trail is a public way under the Highways Act of 1892, a law that declares all roads, trails and paths then in public use to be property of the government in perpetuity. PATH maintains that Haleakala Trail was one of two main ancient Hawaiian thoroughfares on the island and that thousands of tourists hiked it from the early 1800s to the mid-1930s.
The ranch filed a memorandum of opposition last week. It asserts that "evidence of government action in 1905 is minimal" and that PATH has failed to prove the government "opened, laid out or built" Haleakala Trail.
PATH officials have already filed a reply to the ranch's opposition in court, and Pierce said he believes the court should accept the nonprofit and state's motion.
"We wouldn't be doing it if we didn't think we had a strong case," he said. "We think we're entitled to summary judgment."