WAIPIO VALLEY, Hawaii Island – Overuse of the historic Waipio Valley and an effort to sell much of the land have created an uncertain future for the hearty people who live, work and play here.

In addition to taro fields, the valley near the northern tip of the Big Island holds a black sand beach and an eye-popping waterfall that attract hundreds of visitors a day down a steep access road — too many visitors, locals say.

“It’s a critical time for Waipio,” said Jim Cain, a commercial taro farmer who lived in the valley for more than 20 years and now resides part-time in nearby Honokaa. “There’s a lot of change going on.”

Jim Cain works in his taro patch. He finds recent Waipao Valley developments promising. Courtesy of Jim and Gretchen Cain

Cain welcomes much of that change. He points to greater cooperation among stakeholders, resulting in partial control being shifted from largely Oahu-based “absentee” landowners back to the 80-100 people who make their home on the valley floor.

“I think we’re moving in a real positive direction,” he said.

Another positive development, some people say, is a move by leaders of Oahu’s Bishop Museum to take a more hands-on approach after their predecessors put the museum’s 537 acres – the most of any valley landowner – up for sale in January 2016.

The land was never actually listed, and there remains no asking price, Melanie Ide, Bishop Museum president and CEO, said in an email.

Several news reports have placed the value of the land at about $10 million.

“The cultural and historical significance of Waipio Valley is undeniable,” Ide wrote. “We believe the most important thing for Waipio Valley is to ensure the proper stewardship of its lands, historic sites, and living culture.”

Complex title issues will be costly to resolve should any sale move forward, said Noland Eskaran, who has farmed taro in the valley for a half-century and serves as president of the roughly 65-member Waipio Taro Farmers Association.

Noland Eskaran’s family has been farming taro in Waipio Valley for generations. Waipio Valley Road is in the background. Coutesy of Noland Eskaran

The valley’s future “kind of hinges on how solvent Bishop Museum is going to be moving forward,” he said.

Eskaran, who leases 18 acres from the museum, said although agreements have been extended for five years, in the fourth year annual rents for “useable” land will rise from the current $60 per acre to $200 an acre.

“It’s a big jump, but the way we look at it, we need to work with the museum,” he said.

About two-thirds of the poi sold on the Big Island is made from taro grown in Waipio Valley, Eskaran said.

A Park That’s Not A Park

An ever-growing number of visitors are attracted to the remote valley’s black sand beach, burial sites called heiau and one of Hawaii’s largest waterfalls. Hiilawe Falls actually splits into two majestic cascades before dropping more than 1,200 feet.

A trail leading to the waterfall is on private property. Signs warn against trespassing and note a burial site is nearby, but that restriction often is ignored by visitors determined to experience “hidden Hawaii,” as it’s touted on social media sites.

Hundreds of people a day ignore signs like this one. Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat

“Something has to be done because it’s being treated as a park, but it’s not being maintained as a park,” Cain said, noting there are only a few portable bathrooms available for public use. There’s no lifeguard or trash cans, and very limited parking in the back of the valley.

He and other locals claim Waipio is the Big Island’s second-most visited tourist attraction, trailing only Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Numerous online travel sites support that assertion. The national park has been closed since May due to earthquake damage, dangerous volcanic ash and explosions at the summit crater of Kilauea volcano – park officials plan to reopen portions Sept. 22.

“It’s really beautiful,” said Barbara Zimmer, who recently journeyed to the Waipio Valley floor with her husband, Toby, hours after arriving on the Big Island for the first time.

Visitors gather at the Waipio Valley Overlook. Those who venture into the historic valley face a treacherous descent. Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat

The couple live in a mountainous region of southern Germany, so they’re familiar with steep, mountain passes. But those routes are not on the same level as Waipio Valley Road, a rutted, mostly one-lane path that drops 800 vertical feet over a 0.6-mile distance.

“That’s awesome,” Toby Zimmer said after successfully navigating what Wikipedia calls “the steepest road of its length in the United States.”

‘Sorry, Better Not Go’

Although both the website and a sign at the top warn that the four-wheel-drive-only road has a 25 percent grade, some sections appear closer to 45 percent. Landslides resulting from a sheer cliff and frequent rain are common, forcing closure of the Hawaii County-owned road until work crews remove debris.

It cannot handle the hordes of pedestrians, rental vehicles, commercial tour vans, local traffic and commercial farmers hauling heavy loads, say residents, who want to limit visitor access. Some favor establishing an interpretive visitors center at the rim so tourists can learn about the valley without actually experiencing it first-hand.

“We really feel we’ve reached that capacity,” Eskaran said. “It’s gotten to the point where it’s just too many people.”

Eskaran said some have trespassed on his farm, and he’s towed several two-wheel-drive vehicles back up to the valley’s rim. His relatives, he said, are less courteous to the foolhardy.

“We have to share the road, but we’re not very happy about it,” Eskaran said.

Waipio Valley resource ranger and resident Darren Gamayo said on a busy day he counts more than 200 vehicles driving the treacherous road that drops 800 feet to the valley floor. Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat

Darren Gamayo, a valley resident and county parks and recreation resource ranger stationed at the rim, said that on Labor Day he counted 168 local vehicles and 40 rentals making the descent. Many others went uncounted, said Gamayo, who’s unable to tally hikers who can number in the hundreds per day.

“Somebody ever gets hurt back there, that’s it,” he said.

Visitors frequently don’t know how to use four-wheel drive or navigate the steep grade, Gamayo said.

“We’re not here to teach them,” he said. “We just tell them, ‘Sorry, better not go.’”

Cain worries about people getting hurt while trying to navigate the treacherous access road – the only one into the valley.

“It’s amazing that somebody has not gotten killed … because when things go bad on the hill, they go bad really fast,” Cain said.

The Hiilawe Falls in the Waipio Valley, one of the reasons so many people risk the descent. Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat

Actually, someone has gotten killed. A Hamakua man died and another man was badly injured in 2002 when the four-wheel-drive pickup truck they were in went off the cliff, plunging 300-400 feet to the beach below.

Waipio Valley, which means “curved water” in Hawaiian and is the largest of six valleys located along the Hamakua Coast, also is home to wild horses. In the past several months, 12 have died and another was euthanized after showing “abnormal neurologic signs,” according to an Aug. 7 update from the Hawaii Department of Agriculture’s Animal Disease Control Branch.

Various tests were conducted, and toxicology analysis is ongoing, but no one is certain what has harmed the animals.

Larry Vidlak, who has lived above the valley for 10 years and runs a nearby restaurant, suggested the horses drank river water contaminated by oil and antifreeze leaked from trucks that cross the waterway to reach the back of the valley.

“There’s hardly any fish in the river right now, and that might be the reason why,”  Vidlak said.

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