The Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) has proposed an agreement that that it believes will avoid costly litigation, ensure public access to a hiking trail, and create a new access route to two large forest reserves on the leeward slope of Haleakala.
For more than 10 years, a disagreement, and now a lawsuit, has continued concerning the ownership of, and public access to, an obscure trail crossing privately owned lands of Haleakala Ranch. Now, in an effort to find a resolution to the issue and seek a compromise that would serve the public benefit, the state and Haleakala Ranch are considering a land exchange agreement that will provide the greatest public benefit.
Under the agreement, the state would relinquish title to the Haleakala Bridle Trail but maintain a binding, perpetual agreement for public access to the trail. In exchange, the state would receive a perpetual easement for a new access route to its Kahikinui Forest Reserve and Na Kula Natural Area Reserve.
The reserves, located on the upper slopes of leeward Haleakala, comprise more than 3,500 acres of outstanding opportunities for back country hiking, hunting, camping, and nature experience, and are important sites for several department initiatives, including watershed restoration and recovery of endangered species, such as Kiwikiu, the Maui Parrotbill.
The department is seeking approval from the Board of Land and Natural Resources on Friday to proceed with scoping and studies necessary for the proposed exchange but will not proceed further with the exchange without returning to the Board for approval. In addition, under state law, any such proposed land exchange would also require consideration and approval by the state legislature.
“We are considering this proposed land agreement because our initial analysis indicates that it may be the solution with the best public benefit. The public would still have access to the Haleakala Trail but would also gain access to thousands of acres of reserves on leeward Haleakala that provide exciting recreational opportunities,” said William Aila, Chairperson of the Board of Land and Natural Resources.
Hawaii is unique among the states in that is has a law that can ensure public ownership of certain trails if it can be determined that those trails were in existence at the time of the original law signed by Queen Lili’uokalani in 1892, or if other criteria are met. In practice, however, determining whether a particular trail meets the requirements under the law can be technically and legally challenging, requiring extensive research, documentation, and in some cases, litigation.
A purported historic route to the summit of Haleakala represents such a case. While public access advocates have claimed that the historic trail, known as the Bridle Trail or Haleakala Trail, falls under the state law, the landowner has vigorously disagreed. As a result, the access advocates have sued and the case is pending in court.
Conditional to the agreement would be requirements that all natural, cultural, and historic features of the Haleakala are identified, protected, and preserved, that the public must continue to have guided public access to the Haleakala trail in perpetuity at a level that is reasonably consistent with the public demand, and that the department has full management authority over the leeward access route.
By securing access to the Haleakala Trail and gaining new access to the leeward reserves, the proposed exchange represents the best outcome for the public benefit and will avoid a costly lawsuit with an unknown outcome that could result in the loss of access to both sites.