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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, February 5, 2002

Hikers fear loss of Manoa Falls trail

By James Gonser
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

The indefinite closure of the Manoa Falls trail following at least three landslides last week has hikers worried that the situation could become permanent, eliminating one of the most popular hiking destinations on the island.

The state closed the popular Manoa Falls trail Friday after three landslides. Hikers fear the shutdown, more than two years after the Sacred Falls tragedy, may be permanent.

Photo courtesy of Department of Land and Natural Resources

Sacred Falls State Park has been closed since 1999 after a Mother's Day rock slide killed eight people. That tragedy and a resulting lawsuit in which plaintiffs argued that visitors were not warned about the possible dangers of Sacred Falls has the state seeking a balance between liability and access to some of Hawai'i's more rugged areas.

If Manoa Falls were to remain closed, the public would have lost access to O'ahu's two best-known waterfalls. Underlying that concern, though, is fear that the shutdown of another popular hiking area could accelerate a move toward the closure of other trails seen as potentially dangerous.

"Tourists coming to Hawai'i want to go to a beautiful waterfall," said Patrick Rorie, president of the Hawaiian Trail & Mountain Club. Once Sacred Falls closed, "Manoa Falls immediately began to feel the impact" with more and more visitors, he said. The state estimated that 200 visitors a day hiked the trail last year.

"Now they are going to have to go elsewhere," said Rorie. "Some people will go to Maunawili Falls where it is not so spectacular, but has a good swimming hole. And it is not such a risk."

No one was injured in the Manoa Falls slide on Friday, which sent tons of mud, plants and rocks cascading 600 feet to the valley floor after heavy rains soaked the area, but more material is ready to drop at any time near the popular swimming hole.

The state has cut off access until the area is deemed safe. It also has closed the 'Aihualama trail, which connects to the Manoa Falls trail, to keep people away. Signs and barricades have been erected, with enforcement officers patrolling the area to prevent trespassing.

Gerard Villalobos of the Department of Land and Natural Resources yesterday kept hikers from entering the trail.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

State geologist Glenn Bauer said he expects to meet this week with Gilbert Coloma-Agaran, director of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, to discuss long-term plans for the Manoa Falls area.

"At some point this week we will walk in to check at least the base to see if there have been any changes from what we saw in the air Saturday," Bauer said. "There are several places where trees are pointing downward and holding some rocks, soil and vegetation behind it."

Bauer said the Islands are about 2.5 million years old, and the right conditions can send the weathered materials crashing down at any time.

Hikers say they don't want a reoccurrence of the Sacred Falls incident, but are willing to take a certain amount of risk.

"I don't think it (Manoa Falls) needs to be closed long term," Rorie said. "If they want to send some geologists in there, do some studies just like Sacred Falls, that is fine. Rock slides are just an inherent danger. Those type of gorges and gulches with the waterfalls in the back are a natural place for rock slides to occur."

Rorie said before taking people on group hikes they always give a warning about the possibility of rock slides, and some people decide not to go.

John Alford owns 'Ohana Adventure Tours/Bike Hawai'i, one of two commercial operators that used to offer guided tours along the Manoa Falls trail until the state revoked all permits last year. He said he now takes customers to a waterfall on private property in the valley.

Alford said he stays away from steep areas, and cancels tours during bad weather.

"With people suing the state, it could be a long time before it (Manoa Falls) reopens," he said.

Reach James Gonser at jgonser@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2431.