By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Neighbor Island Editor
WAILUKU, Maui — The top conservation enforcement officer on Maui said he was dismayed that county prosecutors dropped the case against a woman who made her home in a lava tube at the 'Ahihi-Kina'u Natural Area Reserve in Makena.
Randy Awo, Maui branch chief of the state Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement, said the action was taken last week without consulting his staff. He said prosecutors agreed to meet with him last Friday to discuss his objections to dismissing the case, but by then they already had filed a court motion to drop the charges against Karen M. Rodriguez, 51. The motion was granted Sept. 1 by 2nd Circuit Judge Joel August.
"I'm extremely concerned about the message it sends to others who would like to enter into highly sensitive cultural and environmental areas and the damage and impacts it can cause," he said Wednesday.
Department of Land and Natural Resources conservation officers cited Rodriguez on Dec. 10 for three violations of state rules regarding natural area reserves. The violations were for setting up a tent or structure in the reserve, disturbing or damaging geological features, and littering. Each is a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail.
'Ahihi-Kina'u is a sparsely vegetated area on the dry south flank of Haleakala that includes a marine area with anchialine pools and coastal lava tubes that provide habitat for native cave animals and were used by Hawaiians as sacred burial sites.
Officials said Rodriguez had been living in the cave for several months, furnishing it with a table, a bed, carpets, empty bird cages, wall decorations, tiki torches, a butane camp stove, dishes, wind chimes, hanging crystals and other belongings. A makeshift outhouse, complete with toilet seat, had been set up in a lava field.
There were also excavation tools and evidence Rodriguez had chipped away at rough surfaces in the lava tube.
Maui County First Deputy Prosecutor Ben Acob on Wednesday said the case raised legal issues that caused prosecutors to give Rodriguez "the benefit of the doubt." He said one of the issues involved whether the woman could be evicted from public land, but he declined to provide further details.
Acob said his office would continue to prosecute conservation violations.
Awo said the court case was not about evicting her, but about clear violations of rules protecting natural area reserves. He said the DLNR has evicted squatters from state land in the past, although the Rodriguez case was somewhat unusual in that the woman had become so entrenched in her wilderness home.
Although Rodriguez no longer occupies the cave, she continues to store her belongings there. Awo said he would be consulting with the state attorney general's office about taking steps to remove the items.
Rodriguez's attorney, David Cain, said the area where his client was living lacked adequate signs identifying it as a natural area reserve. "Prosecutors would've had a difficult time proving that she knew that she was within the boundaries of a state park," he said. "We're talking about a big old lava field. In fact, she stated to one of the officers that she didn't believe she was within the park boundaries."
Cain questioned the other citations, saying Rodriguez didn't set up a tent or structure and was simply living inside the cave. It also would have been hard to enforce the rule about disturbing geological features, he said, since the 'Ahihi-Kina'u reserve is open to hikers, and everyone who tramps through there moves rocks or other material.
The attorney said that if the case had gone to trial, he would have argued that people should be allowed to "commune with nature" on public lands. He called Rodriguez, a seamstress by trade, "a loving, caring individual who goes to (the) beat of her own drum." He compared her to famed American nature lovers John Muir and Henry David Thoreau, and said Rodriguez saw herself as a steward of the land, picking up litter, watching for fires and helping visitors.
According to Cain, the woman recently married and is living in a conventional home in Kahului. She is afraid to return to the lava tube since someone tossed a large rock through an opening in the cave ceiling two or three weeks ago, destroying some of her property, he said.
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