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Visitors won’t stay away from closed parks

Hazardous conditions prevail as crews work to repair Kepaniwai, Iao Valley parks while keeping folks out

Larry Pacheco, Maui district superintendent of state parks, talks about the hazardous conditions in Iao Valley State Monument since a major flood in September. Many visitors have been ignoring warning signs and trespassing in the park, concerning both residents and officials. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

IAO VALLEY — Hazardous conditions following a major flood in September haven’t deterred tourists from trying to visit Kepaniwai Park and Iao Valley State Monument.

Every day, officials and residents said they’ve had to warn people or turn them away from the parks, which are blocked off with signs and locked gates.

“We put up signs and people walk right past,” said Larry Pacheco, Maui district superintendent of state parks for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Last week, the state started work on stabilizing the bank alongside the Iao Valley park parking lot. With the heavy equipment present, hikers run the risk of getting injured or delaying work, department officials said.

“We realize this is a major disappointment for the thousands of visitors who have a trip to the state monument on their must-see lists,” state Parks Administrator Curt Cottrell said. “(But) anytime construction has to stop because of the presence of unauthorized individuals, it could have the impact of delaying the ultimate reopening of the park.”

Keith Weigel of T.J. Gomes Trucking (right) and staff from the Department of Land and Natural Resources survey a slope already covered in shotcrete. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

Heavy rains and flooding in September damaged homes and portions of both parks, which have been closed and under repair ever since. Kepaniwai is about three to six weeks away from reopening, county officials said. Iao Valley is slated to reopen in June, according to the state.

When the Iao Valley State Monument was open, it averaged about 1,800 visitors daily, Pacheco said in October.

Since the flood, valley resident Charlie Pico has grown tired of shooing away visitors. Cars parked along the side of the road and drivers turning around on the narrow bridge block the way for residents trying to get out almost every day.

“If I don’t stand here and do this, look how many cars would be here,” Pico said Monday as he waved away a steady stream of vehicles. “I got better things to do than stand out here.”

He said he doesn’t blame the tourists but a lack of information. As a retired firefighter, he’s also concerned about access for first responders.

Valley resident Charlie Pico discusses the closure of Kepaniwai Park and Iao Valley State Monument with a driver Monday. Pico has to turn away cars almost daily. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

“If I need one emergency vehicle up here, good luck,” Pico said.

Park rangers and Maui police also are “constantly telling people the park is closed,” county Parks and Recreation Director Ka’ala Buenconsejo said. A few are local; most are visitors, and some “get very argumentative,” Pacheco said. Around Presidents Day, DLNR staff found 12 people walking around the park.

Officers from the Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement (DOCARE) do regular checks and can cite offenders.

“There’s just hazards within the park that we haven’t been able to take care of yet,” Pacheco said. “It’s so far up that (visitors) have no idea what it looks like. But they want to come up here. They want to see the needle.”

The county has tried to spread the message through the Maui Hotel and Lodging Association, but those who aren’t staying at major resorts might not get the information, Buenconsejo said.

In the meantime, the state is working to stabilize the steep dirt cliff side at the edge of the Iao Valley park parking lot. Contractor T.J. Gomes Trucking plans to coat about 410 feet of exposed cliff face with shotcrete, which is concrete shot out of a hose. Bad weather and equipment malfunctions have delayed the process, but so far about 25 percent of the project is done, T.J. Gomes supervisor Keith Weigel said.

“We just need about three more good days,” Weigel said.

Putting shotcrete on the 60-foot-tall cliff face will make conditions safer for workers as they install a 10-foot-tall rock revetment along the bank to create a solid base. The shotcrete is mixed with fiberglass to help it “lock into the actual face of the cliff,” Pacheco said. It can be sculpted and colored to look like rocks or covered with geowebbing to allow vegetation to grow on top. The state will bring different options to the community once the shotcrete has been laid, Pacheco said.

The shotcrete stabilization is costing the department about $1.8 million.

Meanwhile, Kepaniwai Park is about three to six weeks away from reopening. Buenconsejo said the waterlines “are back up and running,” but that the county is working to get potable water to the park from the treated water station. The park is still open to cultural practitioners, but facilities aren’t equipped to accommodate visitors yet.

Once Kepaniwai opens, it’s possible more illegal hikers will start accessing the still-closed state park, Buenconsejo said.

“We certainly don’t want anyone to get hurt because they chose to ignore more than a half-dozen ‘closed’ signs,” Cottrell said. “Our staff and contractors are working diligently to repair the damage and restore Iao Valley State Monument to its preflood condition. We have always said that we hope to reopen the park sometime in June 2017 and ask for everyone’s kokua to help make that happen . . . by not trespassing into closed areas.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.