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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 29, 2002

Liability cuts access to Poamoho Trail

By Will Hoover
Advertiser North Shore Writer

Since the 1930s, intrepid adventurers such as Geraldine Cline have hiked the rugged Poamoho Trail to the summit of the Ko'olau Range, to what some say is the most breathtaking view of O'ahu.

Dennis Keigley of Wahiawa stops his bicycle at boulders blocking Dole Hawai'i's access road to the Poamoho Trail.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

For Cline, a 23-year-old University of Hawai'i student and avid Ko'olau hiker who was killed in a 1975 automobile accident, the windy terminus of the Poamoho Trail was especially moving. Today, a memorial dedicated to Cline marks the location.

Now the Poamoho Trail, Cline's marker, the spectacular view, and access to some 5,000 acres of public lands in the 'Ewa Forest Reserve near Wahiawa are off limits to individual hikers and mountain bikers, as well as hunters who thin out destructive wild pig populations.

Access to the trail from Dole Hawai'i property has been shut off for liability reasons. The state is trying to work something out with the company, but until that's settled, access is granted only to Sierra Club Hawai'i, which has $10 million in general liability insurance and takes tours to the summit once or twice a year.

The Poamoho Trail is another example of the recurring issue of access to public lands in Hawai'i. From the shoreline to the top of the Ko'olau Mountains, some areas are being cut off by private landowners who control gates and other key access points on their property.

Landowners typically support Hawai'i's tradition of ensuring access to all public lands, as in the Poamoho Trail case.

But they say they also have a right to deny access when people dump garbage or create liability problems because of unsafe behavior.

Dennis Keigley, a Wahiawa explorer and mountain biker who has pedaled to the summit of the Ko'olau Range and knows the area extensively, said he knew of no practical way to reach Poamoho Trail other than across Dole property. He was startled recently to find the access road blocked.

"They've totally closed it off," Keigley said of the road next to the Dole Plantation in Wahiawa. "They have their own metal access gate not far from there, but the main road to the mountain range has huge boulders across it and they've bulldozed the dirt up next to them."

When Keigley wheeled his way around the boulders, he said he was stopped by a Dole employee who asked him to leave.

Yoshi Tanabe, land and facility manager for Dole, said the decision to close the road was made early this year because of liability issues related to stolen pineapples, dumped trash, abandoned vehicles and people who "desecrate the land" with motorbikes and four-wheel-drive vehicles.

He acknowledged that the company road is virtually the only way to reach the trail and thousands of acres of public lands. But access is no longer possible because of safety concerns, he said. Dole could be liable for what happens even on land nearby that it leases to others.

"There are a lot of good people who just want to go in there for hiking and things like that," Tanabe said. "But there are a few bad apples that go in and do all kinds of stuff that we want to prevent."

Tanabe said he urges individuals wanting to use the trail to contact Sierra Club Hawai'i.

But Jeff Mikulina, director of Sierra Club Hawai'i, said his organization makes only one or two Poamoho Trail excursions a year, planned months in advance. Like Tanabe and others familiar with the situation, he described it as a case of a few people messing things up for everyone else.

"We support public access," he said. "And it is frustrating when public land is blocked like that. On the other hand, Dole is rightly concerned with liability issues. In the end, the public loses."

Another potential concern is that hunters are no longer allowed access to the trail.

"People have got to realize how important it is to get the hunters in there and keep the pig population down," said Pascual Dabis, president of the O'ahu Pig Hunter's Association, adding that hunters had not been in the forest reserve for months. "Otherwise there's going to be a big problem."

Aaron Lowe, trails and access specialist with the Department of Land and Natural Resources, agreed.

"Pigs do damage to the forest," Lowe said. "We have an obligation to the public to protect those forest assets and the watershed quality, and the hunters are offering a valuable service in helping our conservation efforts."

Lowe, who has been trying to work out a solution, said the public had a tendency to point a finger at hunters, who are rarely the cause of the problem.

"The problem there has been excessive trespassing, vandalism and theft," Lowe said. "There has been a lot of abandoning of cars and setting them on fire. It's become a safety and health hazard.

"The only thing we can do to help get the public back up to that area is that we indemnify the access — in other words, we assume the liability for Dole."

That leaves taxpayers vulnerable, Lowe said, so any agreement will have to be worked out carefully between Dole and state attorneys.

Still, he believes some arrangement can be worked out before the end of the year. It probably will require people to accept the inconvenience of acquiring permits to access Poamoho Trail.

No one has figured out another way to curb the damage and difficulties caused by those who show little regard for a historic trail that leads to some of the most scenic wilderness left on O'ahu.

"You've basically got some riffraff guys who are just bad seeds, who see the forest reserve as an open piece of recreational land to rip and tear," Lowe said.

Reach Will Hoover at 525-8038 or whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com.