Oahu’s Haiku Stairs, one of Hawaii’s greatest examples of a social media-fueled tourist attraction that is technically illegal, took a big step toward becoming a legitimate destination after the current property owners, the Board of Water Supply, approved a plan for Honolulu to take over and manage the hiking trail.
Dubbed “Stairway to Heaven,” the 3,922 steps climb up the Puu Keahiakahoe ridge in the Koolau Mountains, 2,820 feet above sea level, to a panoramic lookout of Oahu and the Pacific.
On April 27, the BWS board of directors voted unanimously to move forward, with stipulations, on a plan to transfer the property to the county, which will in turn maintain the stairs and provide facilities to make it open to public access, most likely with an entry fee.
The stairs have been slated for removal for several years, and in the months leading up to the hearing, roughly 3,800 public comments were submitted. The vast majority, more than 3,600, expressed support for maintaining the stairs. There is a vociferous opposition, however, who claim the stairs are a burden on taxpayers and hikers who use the trail are a nuisance to residents living near the trailhead.
The U.S. Navy originally installed the staircase in the 1940s during World War II to replace a wooden ladder leading to radio transmission equipment on the ridge. In 1975, the U.S. Coast Guard took over and permitted public access under a system that required hikers to log in and sign a liability waiver. After the staircase was featured on an episode of “Magnum P.I.,” traffic jumped. Legal access was terminated in 1987 after vandals destroyed portions of the staircase.
But hikers continued to come, and shots of sweeping vistas posted to Facebook, Instagram and other sites served to introduce the Haiku Stairs to a new generation of travelers well after the trail was closed. An estimated 4,000 people risk trespassing violations and their own safety to climb the stairs each year, the BWS estimates, and since 2017 about 10,800 people have been turned away by security.
“With the advent of social media, instructions to illegally access Haiku Stairs are readily available, and prolific sharing of panoramic snapshots encourages people around the world to risk the climb,” reads an environmental impact statement on the Haiku Stairs published in June 2019. “There is an ongoing need to stop trespassing and reduce disruptions in the adjacent residential neighborhoods.”
The BWS budgets approximately $250,000 annually for security services to deter trespassers, according to the report, in addition to other costs to address maintenance and vandalism.
Many comments submitted for the hearing in support of keeping the Haiku Stairs came from tourists who had made the trek themselves or hope to in the future.
“This has been on my bucket list for years,” wrote Nicole Amato. “I currently am living in New Zealand and have always wanted to go to Hawaii, especially after flying through the Honolulu Airport on my way here. With the coronavirus things occurring, travel and tourism are taking a massive hit, and I think removing any attraction such as this that allows people to appreciate nature will be super important after all this blows over.”
Hawaii residents as well expressed support for finding a way to safely manage the trail and staircase.
“The Haiku Stairs are a fixture, a landmark, a part of what makes Kaneohe great, and an important part of so many of our histories in our homeland,” said Cynthia Fite. “I agree there needs to be managing of the hiking, but that is a doable undertaking that many of us would be happy to assist with.”
Fewer than 200 commenters argued against keeping the stairs, many of them residents who complain of hikers trespassing on private property, causing disturbances, and leaving behind trash.
The BWS-approved plan, supported by Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, calls for the county to purchase more than 200 acres surrounding the metal staircase and then contract an outside company to responsibly manage the area. Yet, the unanimous decision came with caveats. BWS gave Honolulu 18 months to complete the acquisition, otherwise the agency will move forward with a plan to remove the “Stairway to Heaven” at an estimated cost of $1 million. BWS originally acquired the land as a potential future water source, but has since determined it is not needed.
“I believe Haiku Stairs is an important and unique asset on Oahu, and that the stairs should be preserved as long as they can be renovated for safety, and that public access issues are addressed and resolved,” Caldwell wrote in an April 14 letter to BWS.
The stairs have come close to both destruction and rescue numerous times. In 1997 the Coast Guard signaled its intent to dismantle the staircase after decommissioning its station in Haiku Valley, but left them in place after the county expressed interest in taking over the land as public amenity. In 2002, Honolulu spent $875,000 to refurbish the Haiku Stairs as it readied to obtain the land from BWS, but challenges to creating a legal public thoroughfare to the bottom of the stairs derailed the plan.
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