KAHULUI - The Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) last week authorized the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) to seek bids to conduct an Archaeological Inventory Survey and Environmental Assessment necessary to explore a proposed land exchange agreement between the state and Haleakala Ranch that the department believes will ensure public access to a disputed hiking trail and create a new access route to two large forest reserves on the leeward slope of Haleakala.
The Land Board made clear that it was approving further study of the proposed transaction only, and that it would decide on the merits only after this further study with appropriate public input. The board declined authorizing the DLNR chairman to negotiate and execute an agreement with Haleakala Ranch Co. and agree, in principle, to terms for a potential exchange of lands.
Once the reviews are conducted, Division of Forestry and Wildlife staff will return to the board for further decision-making. In addition, under state law, any such proposed land exchange would also require consideration by the state legislature.
One of the alternatives under consideration entails the state relinquishing title to the Haleakala Bridle Trail but maintaining a binding, perpetual agreement for public access to the trail. In exchange, the state would receive a perpetual easement that would allow for a new public access route to its Kahikinui Forest Reserve and 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 the Maui Parrotbill.
"The department supports the further study needed to consider fully this proposed land exchange. We are looking for the solution with the greatest public benefit," said William Aila Jr., chairman 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 Liliuokalani 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.
The recommended studies will ensure that all natural, cultural and historic features of the Haleakala Trail and the proposed Wailaulau access are identified, protected and preserved. The department noted that it will explore additional alternatives and looks forward "to working in partnership with the landowner, with stakeholders and the community to come up with the greatest public benefit."