Landslide closes Kalaupapa Trail

Loss of bridge plus the government shutdown makes predicting when trail reopens uncertain

Mules make their way across the bridge along the second switchback of the Kalaupapa Trail on Oct. 1. Kalaupapa Rare Adventure has had to suspend its mule tours after a landslide damaged the bridge near the top of the trail last week. Photo courtesy Kalehua Sproat-Augustiro

The Kalaupapa Trail has been closed indefinitely after a landslide took out a bridge along one of the switchbacks, and with the government shutdown still in effect, it’s unclear when the trail might reopen.

“Right now we have the trail closed until we can take a look at it and figure out how to repair it,” Rhonda Loh, acting superintendent for the Kalaupapa National Historical Park, said Sunday. “We’re a little short-staffed with the shutdown, so we will look at that when the government shutdown is over.”

The 3-mile trail zigzags down the steep cliffside in a series of 26 switchbacks, and provides the only land access to the isolated peninsula on Molokai’s north coast. Hikers, mule riders and federal and state employees use the trail to access Kalaupapa. The bridge is located on the second switchback — the same spot where it washed out in 2010.

A postal service worker discovered the damage to the bridge on the evening of Christmas Day and reported it to park staff, Loh said. Two park rangers went out early the next morning to assess the damage and decided to close the trail.

With the government shutdown going into its second week, Loh didn’t know when the bridge might be repaired, when the trail might reopen or how much it might cost. She said the park is “at minimal operations” with only essential employees on the job without pay.

A landslide along the Kalaupapa Trail collapsed sections of a bridge and forced the closure of the trail last week. A postal service worker discovered the damage on Christmas Day. With the ongoing government shutdown, the National Park Service said it’s unclear when the trail will reopen. National Park Service photo

About 35 employees work at the park. Loh wasn’t sure how many hike down each day. During the shutdown, eight employees are still working, with only one or two on duty at a time. The shutdown and the closure of the trail haven’t had major impacts on park operations just yet, but both could take a toll as time goes on.

“We do a lot of preservation of the historic area and the natural resources, and luckily it’s during the holidays when people were planning to take breaks anyway,” Loh said. “But I imagine if the shutdown were to go on longer, there would be more impacts.”

Meanwhile, Kalaupapa Rare Adventure has suspended its mule-riding tours, said Kalehua Sproat-Augustiro, whose family has been guiding riders down the trail since the 1970s.

“Everybody who has a reservation to go down, we just do fly-in if that’s what they want,” Sproat-Augustiro said Sunday.

In April 2010, a mudslide damaged the bridge along the same switchback and forced the closure of the trail for several months. The National Park Service replaced the damaged bridge with a new 65-foot “high-grade aluminum span,” according to Molokai Dispatch reports in 2010. The bridge looks mostly wooden because the aluminum was painted brown to blend in with the wood decking and railings. The trail was reopened in November 2010, and repairs totaled $400,000, according to Hawaii News Now reports at the time.

Sproat-Augustiro recalled that her family helped transport supplies by mule to the workers in 2010. A helicopter lowered the bridge in one large piece that was drilled into place. She also remembered the many phone calls her father, Buzzy Sproat, had to make to politicians to speed up the process.

“Hopefully it gets repaired as soon as possible,” Sproat-Augustiro said of the current bridge. “Because it did take a long time for them to even make a move to fix it (in 2010). . . . I can guarantee it will take more than half a year to get the ball rolling, especially with the government shutdown.”

So far with the shutdown, Sproat-Augustiro said it’s still been “business as usual” for Kalaupapa Rare Adventure. Park employees aren’t really part of the tours, so the shutdown hasn’t impacted the company. Most tours during the holidays have been close to capacity, with about 25 people making up a full tour.

“As long as people keep booking the fly-ins, we should be able to just stay above water,” Sproat-Augustiro said.

The mule ride has continued to operate since the spring, when landowner R.W. Meyer Ltd. announced that it was evicting Kalaupapa Rare Adventure over a lease dispute. However, Sproat-Augustiro said that there haven’t been any problems since then. She said the two sides never came to an official agreement but are now at a point where “they no bother us, we no bother them.”

R.W. Meyer could not be immediately reached for comment Sunday.

Also impacted by the trail closure is the state Department of Health, which employs just over 40 people at Kalaupapa.

“It does impact us in the sense that the employees that normally use the trail to come to and from work will no longer be able to do that, but we are trying to find solutions to that by working with the airlines,” said Kenneth Seamon, Kalaupapa administrator for the department.

Seamon wasn’t sure exactly how many employees usually hike down the trail on a daily basis.

“Of course it makes everything a little more difficult, especially for our people who live topside, but yeah, we’re doing OK,” he said.

Supplies to Kalaupapa shouldn’t be impacted since they come via barge and plane. Seamon said the barge arrives once a year in the summer, and Kamaka Air stops by weekly.

Rob McKinney, president of Mokulele Airlines, said that the company added extra flights on Mondays and Fridays between Kalaupapa and topside Molokai. He said if there is “still demand beyond what we’ve added, we’ll add some more.” Mokulele was selected by the federal government to provide Essential Air Service to Kalaupapa in March, but because the airline does not receive a subsidy as part of the agreement, the shutdown has not really had an impact, McKinney said.

Makani Kai President Richard Schuman said his airline added two more daily round trips for workers and residents, and another two daily round trips for visitors — though that could change depending on how many people book tours day to day.

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

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