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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 13, 2005

Wa'ahila Ridge use plan needed, many say

By James Gonser
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

Amid an ongoing effort by state officials to evict illegal campers from Wa'ahila Ridge, a recreational plan for the conservation land may be in the next step to preserving and protecting the area.

Groups are starting to organize to develop a long-term plan for Wa'ahila Ridge State Recreation Area.

Rebecca Breyer • The Honolulu Advertiser

"It's a remarkable undeveloped jewel in the middle of this urban core that periodically fills up with transients," said Curt Cottrell, manager of the Na Ala Hele trails program. "The mountain-bike guys use it, people walking their dogs, the (University of Hawai'i) Hawaiian studies use it, and it is all happening without any organization."

Deborah Ward, state Department of Land and Natural Resources spokeswoman, said crews went up to an area just below Wa'ahila Ridge State Recreation Area Jan. 28 and demolished makeshift homes that have been hidden in the brush for years.

"We will have to go back for further cleanup, maybe later this month," she said.

Last June, a fire broke out at a campsite of homeless people about a half-mile down a dirt trail from the state recreation area, and Ken Swearingen, president of the St. Louis Community Association, said St. Louis Heights residents are concerned that another fire could spread to homes.

Firefighters could only reach the area on foot, which was at least a quarter-mile over rough terrain from the nearest hydrant.

A community driven plan for the ridge would include the various groups that use it — neighborhood boards, and environmental and cultural groups. Those organizations could also help to maintain and beautify the area, which has been overrun by grasses and other non-native species, Cottrell said.

"Now is the time for the community groups that have a vested emotional interest in Wa'ahila Ridge to come together," Cottrell said. "The community stakeholders need to say what they want this ridge to look like 20 years from now."

He said the DLNR does not have the money to prepare a plan, but could offer its support and expertise. "If you don't fill it up with something proactive over time something offensive may end up there," he said.

The Wa'ahila Ridge State Recreation Area includes both regulated and unregulated trails and is considered an important Native Hawaiian cultural area. Although a Hawaiian Electric Co. plan to put new power lines on the ridge was defeated, officials and activists say the area is threatened by humans.

Rebecca Breyer • The Honolulu Advertiser

The ridge has three major property owners: UH near the bottom along Dole Street, the state which manages the park and the conservation land, and the Board of Water Supply which has water tanks on its property.

An unregulated trail runs from Dole Street to the park, and from there managed trails take hikers to the top of the Ko'olaus. The area is considered culturally significant to Hawaiians and is used by UH classes for field work.

In 1997, Hawaiian Electric Co. wanted to place new power lines along the ridge, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared Wa'ahila one of the nation's most endangered historic places. Following strong community opposition, HECO dropped plans for the project.

Rep. Kirk Caldwell, D-24th (Manoa), supports the idea of community involvement to create a recreational use plan.

"I think Wa'ahila should be kept in conservation and it should be protected as much as possible from any kind of human encroachment that would impact erosion or create a fire danger," Caldwell said. "It is a long, ongoing, festering problem that needs to be addressed before something really bad happens."

Caldwell suggested residents take the time to organize and create a draft plan and then come to the Legislature next year if they are looking for financial support.

Karen Ah Mai, executive director of the Ala Wai Watershed Association, said her nonprofit group has been involved in discussions about the ridge and its connection to the watershed. They could take a leading role in developing a recreational plan that includes coordinating with community groups, returning natives plants to the ridge and applying for grants to make the project happen, she said.

"If all the various users can take responsibility for their own kuleana but respect each other, we think we can get a multi-use ridge without people fighting," said Ah Mai. "Talk, come up with a plan, then try for some funding if we are really interested."

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