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On the lower slopes of Mauna Kea, more than 56,000 acres of land held in trust for Native Hawaiians serve as a gateway to the heavens.
The road to the top slices through these wild, empty pastures, ushering an untold number of visitors to a place where, according to Hawaiian spirituality, the gods dwell at the juncture of sky and summit. You can’t get to the mountain’s iconic, 32,000-foot peak without crossing this acreage set aside for the rehabilitation of Hawaii’s indigenous people following a century of colonization.
Due to a scarcity of funding and decades of mismanagement, Native Hawaiians have been mostly absent from these 97-year-old trust lands. But last Monday, a few new tenants moved in.
Frustrated by the slow pace at which Hawaiian beneficiaries are being awarded homestead leases under a state law, a group of about two dozen beneficiaries and their supporters erected a wooden shanty, hooked up a generator and assembled a makeshift kitchen. Battling whipping winds and bitter cold, they have maintained a seamless, around-the-clock presence along the summit access road ever since.
They call themselves Kanaka Rangers. Throwing shakas, logging daily vehicle counts and dolling out Band-aids, sweaters and weather reports as needed, these self-appointed rangers say they are done waiting for the state Department of Hawaiian Homelands to properly manage their resources.
“I’m on the waitlist, my mom died on the waitlist and my dad is looking like he is going to pass away on the waitlist, too,” said Kepa Kaeo, 34. “The trust has been broken ever since it was developed. Our goal is not to get ourselves awards but to move the list forward in order. We want to get the kupunas awarded before they pass away and before their successors get cut out.”
Since 1921, thousands of beneficiaries of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act have waited for land awards that would allow them to transform the trust lands on Mauna Kea’s slopes, and elsewhere in the islands, into homesteads.
Once thick with native forest, this mostly vacant acreage on one of Hawaii’s most iconic mountains has over time been degraded by invasive plants, grazing cattle and human neglect. There are no roads, no potable water and no power on these trust lands. A noxious weed threatens to render a fifth of the land practically useless.
In 2009, DHHL — the historically land-rich but cash-poor state body given stewardship of the land trust as a condition of Hawaii’s statehood — developed the Aina Mauna Legacy Program, which divides Mauna Kea’s trust lands into distinct uses for forest, pasture and homesteads.
But the Kanaka Rangers say the plan, which calls for the restoration of the natural and cultural resources, hasn’t bred any tangible progress. They say this is especially true of the HHCA’s primary purpose, which is to provide the Hawaiian people with residential, pastoral and ranching homesteads.
“We’ve been waiting and our resources are still sitting neglected,” said Lakea Trask, 31, a part-time substitute teacher who helped establish the Kanaka Ranger program. “Out here we are just trying to follow the same plan that the department has already adopted, and that is to clear the land, protect the natural resources and put the people on the land. We believe we can do it all if we do first what they want to do last, which is put Hawaiians on the land.”
The rangers are on the trust lands without DHHL’s consent. The department did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
One reason why the rangers have decided to track vehicular traffic on the summit access road is because they want to get a sense of how a visitor entry fee could help fund some of the environmental and cultural initiatives outlined in the Aina Mauna Legacy Program.
No one tracks how many people go to Mauna Kea. On Thursday, the Kanaka Rangers tallied 866 visitors.
The rangers do not stop vehicles passing by their checkpoint. But they do stand along the roadway to greet them. The rangers say some visitors will stop to talk story or ask questions about things like the conditions at higher elevations.
“I’m on the waitlist, my mom died on the waitlist and my dad is looking like he is going to pass away on the waitlist, too.” — Kanaka Ranger Kepa Kaeo
The community-led ranger program is inspired by the “Country Needs People” campaign adopted by aboriginal Australians. Australia’s ranger program draws on the long-held cultural and traditional responsibilities of aboriginals to protect and manage their natural resources.
In a nod to the Australian program, the so-called Kanaka Rangers have adopted this slogan: “Aina Needs Kanaka.”
They say their initiative is unrelated to protests against the Thirty Meter Telescope.
State Sen. Kaiali’i Kahele said he visited the summit access road checkpoint Friday and found the rangers to be dedicated, friendly and nondisruptive.
“There’s too much human impact on the summit of Mauna Kea and you can’t go there without going through Native Hawaiian lands” said Kahele, a Native Hawaiian from Hilo. “But what are the Native Hawaiians getting out of that access? Not a penny. So how do we pay to eradicate the cattle and the invasive species, and how to we get utilities on the land?”
Kahele said he’s not necessarily a supporter of the grassroots ranger program. But he said he understands why the rangers are there and he sympathizes with many of their grievances about the mismanagement of their trust lands.
“You go to Hanauma Bay and even locals have to check in, pay a fee and watch a video before you go down to the beach,” Kahele said. “When you go to Haleakala, you have to pay to go to the summit. When you go to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, you have to pay to go into the park. But when it comes to Mauna Kea, nobody pays anything. But those fees are what allows us to properly manage and steward those other natural resources.”
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