Park to assess its sunrise system

Meeting set to gather testimony on summit overcrowding and NPS online reservations

Haleakala National Park is putting its sunrise reservation program, implemented nearly a year ago to deal with overcrowding at the summit, through the environmental assessment process and will be holding a public meeting on it from 5 to 6:30 p.m. today at the Mayor Hannibal Tavares Community Center in Pukalani.

Viewing the sunrise at the peak of 10,023-foot Haleakala, the “House of the Sun,” is among the more popular visitor activities for the island, but the growth had overwhelmed the available parking at the four sunrise viewing spots, said the draft environmental assessment released this month. There was an average of 21 percent more vehicles arriving for sunrise, the most popular time at the park, between 2015 and 2016. In September 2016, noncommercial vehicles regularly exceeded the 150 available parking spots by an average of 100 vehicles each morning, it said.

Concerns were raised in fall 2016 about the safety of visitors and park staff and for sensitive natural and cultural resources at the summit, the draft report said. On Feb. 1, the park implemented a pilot reservation system to limit the number of noncommercial vehicles to no more than 150 vehicles from 3 to 7 a.m. Those interested in seeing the sunrise currently are required to purchase a $1.50 reservation online up to 60 days in advance and to show photo ID and pay the entry fee.

The majority of the reservations are released 60 days in advance but some reservations are held until two days in advance to allow for more “spontaneous trips,” the draft report said.

The reservation system has “dramatically reduced crowding at the summit during sunrise hours, along with the safety concerns and resource damage,” the draft report said.

The “emergency restrictions” were intended to be temporary while the park studied the issue to come up with the best long-term solution, the draft report said.

The purpose of the environmental assessment is to analyze three possible actions to manage sunrise summit visits for the safety of visitors and park staff, to protect sensitive natural and cultural resources and to improve the visitor experience, the draft report said.

“Implementation of a well-thought-out plan” will keep visitor numbers at levels that can be safely accommodated by the existing infrastructure, the report said. Keeping vehicle numbers to those levels means less incentive for visitors to park off-pavement and potentially damage native plants and cultural resources or to drive recklessly to find a parking spot. Smaller crowds at viewing spots mean fewer people wandering off established trails during times of limited light, which will result in less risk of accident and damage to resources.

The three alternatives under consideration are:

– Removing the reservation system.

– Continuing the reservation system with some modifications. Those could include increasing the number of reservations each morning to account for no-shows, adjusting the ratio of reservations available 60 days and two days in advance, creating a waitlist, allowing people to release their reservation online if not to be used, and preventing visitors from reserving more than one day within a certain time period to prevent hoarding.

– Closing at capacity. This would be a “first come, first served” policy with the first 150 noncommercial vehicles allowed into the park. The entrance would be closed until after sunrise hours.

Two possible alternatives were dismissed — building more parking and overlooks and using a shuttle system, such as at Zion and Yosemite national parks.

The building of more spaces and viewing platforms was rejected because construction would have negative impacts on wildlife and plants and archaeological sites. In addition, more visitors would diminish the overall experience for visitors, the draft report said.

The shuttle system idea was rejected because it is currently not feasible economically, with costs such as purchasing and maintaining buses and the construction of infrastructure for the shuttle system, including a fueling station, maintenance yard and a new parking lot for visitor vehicles, too high for the park to handle.

The shuttle system “represents a more long-term potential solution to a larger problem of visitor transportation management,” the draft report said. When the park works on a transportation plan for the summit, the shuttle system may arise again as an option.

At the public meeting, park staff will provide information, answer questions and accept comments. Public comments also will be accepted online or via email or postal mail through Feb. 20.

Online comments may be posted at the National Park Service Planning, Environmental, and Public Comment website, parkplanning.nps.gov/sunrise.

Comments can be mailed to Haleakala NP, Sunrise Visitor Management EA, Attention: Linette King, P.O. Box 369, Makawao, 96768; or emailed to HALE_Superintendent@nps.gov with the subject line “Sunrise Visitor Management EA.”

Comments will not be accepted by fax. Bulk comments in any format submitted on behalf of others will not be accepted.

The draft environmental assessment can be found at parkplanning.nps.gov/sunrise.

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.

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