State restricts access to cliff in West Maui

Climbers frustrated with decision

A climber scales a sheer cliff face in the Lihau section of the West Maui Natural Area Reserve last year. The state is restricting access to the cliff due to concerns over climbing hardware installed in the rock face. Climbers were frustrated with the decision and said they wished the state would’ve worked with them on a solution. Photo courtesy Dave Elberg

Concerns over rock climbing impacts have led the state to close a cliff face in the Lihau section of the West Maui Natural Area Reserve.

On Friday, the state Board of Land and Natural Resources unanimously approved the closure of the rock face where climbing hardware has been found. The closure is for up to two years.

Members of the Maui rock climbing community were frustrated with the decision, saying that they wish the state would’ve tried to work with them rather than restrict access to the cliff.

“We’ve taken it upon ourselves to take care of the land in whatever small ways we can and tread lightly,” Haiku resident and climber Dave Elberg said Monday. “That’s always what we do. Now they want to shut down the area for two years. It’s just frustrating because I feel like it’s kind of stigmatizing our group.”

According to Division of Forestry and Wildlife reports provided to the board, rock climbers have been installing hardware and footholds into cliffs in the reserve, impacting threatened and endangered native plants. Some of the plants were actually growing under the metal holds and steps pounded into the dry cliff walls, according to the report.

Modifying geological features, including chipping away rock for footholds, is prohibited under state law and continued use of the walls for rock climbing exposes the rare plants to more damage, Forestry and Wildlife Division officials said.

Staff also noted that West Maui’s only known population of yellow hibiscus was in danger of being trampled by hikers heading for the cliff walls.

Makawao resident Jeff Jackson said the climbing community first heard about the issue a couple of years ago from “folks sympathetic to climbing who work for the NAR/state.”

“Climbers have been active here for many years and have never needed or wanted such hardware,” Jackson said via email on Thursday. “As soon as climbers heard that these installations were potentially impacting native plants, they took it upon themselves to remove the steps.”

Jackson said that the steps have been gone now “for a couple of years.”

“I’m not sure why officials are citing them since they no longer exist,” he said. “Please note that ‘climbers’ do not use these aids.”

Jackson added that there has “never been chipping away of rock for footholds,” and that it was against the climbing code of ethics and “anathema to climbers.”

Elberg also said the metal rungs were removed “one or two years ago.” He last visited the site earlier this year and said “the rungs were definitely gone.”

According to the Forestry and Wildlife Division, “staff inspected the site on May 2018 and reported climbing hardware in several locations.”

“The type of hardware that is installed in the rocks is of the type used by climbers,” the division said via email Monday. “Furthermore, given the steepness of the rock faces on which the hardware is installed, it could only have been installed by a person by climbing to it. Therefore, it is logical that it was installed by climbers.”

The Division of Forestry and Wildlife explained that the hardware installed at the site included “metal rebar ladder-type rungs, and climbing hardware that is permanently bolted into the rock by drilling, used to secure ropes for climbing routes.”

When asked whether the metal rungs in question were still there as of Monday, a spokesperson with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources said that “we’re not sure of more recent site inspections, but even if they did remove the rebar, we doubt anyone has removed all the other bolts that are on the climbing routes.”

The division clarified that it did not claim that climbers chipped rocks and had cited it as an example of the kind of activities it was trying to prevent.

The division reminded reserve users that “injuring any form of plant or animal life, or damaging or disturbing any geological feature, is prohibited.” As misdemeanor offenses, they can garner fines of at least $1,000 or imprisonment of not more than one year — or both penalties — for each offense. Drilling and installing hardware onto geological features within a natural area reserve “is inconsistent with the purpose of the NAR and is illegal.”

“Our aim is not just to protect plants and wildlife but also to prevent damage to geological features,” the Forestry and Wildlife Division said.

For Jackson, the goal of preservation is shared by climbers.

“Inaccuracies in the report cast climbers as insensitive to the delicate native ecosystem, and this is not the case,” he said. “Climbers have always been amongst the best custodians of the aina.”

Elberg said that he tried to reach out to the state with possible solutions. One idea he’d had was to create a probationary period where access would be limited to “a select group of climbers who are in communication with BLNR and actively doing work in the area to protect these native plants,” such as putting up signage and fencing or helping with the propagation of native plants.

“I understand they’re coming from a good place, and they’re trying to protect these endangered plants, but I wish they would recognize that we want that too, and we could start taking action soon so it wouldn’t have to close,” he said.

Elberg said, “there’s always going to be a minimal amount of impact to some plants wherever you’re walking through nature,” but said if climbers are aware of the plants and work to avoid them, the impact can be minimal.

On Friday, the board also approved a proposal for an online reservation system that would allow for guided hikes of Haleakala Trail, which was the subject of a long legal battle over public access and ownership claims.

The proposed reservation system would allow for scheduled hikes of up to 20 people on the first Saturday of each quarter, led by trained, certified guides from Haleakala Ranch and the Sierra Club.

The hikes on part of the old trail to the summit of Haleakala may take place more often if there is enough interest.

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


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