Picture an architectural and engineering wonder unmatched in all the world, with fabulous views, that doubles as a hike through the clouds in a Hawaii rainforest. Would your first inclination be to … tear it down? 

That’s exactly what the Honolulu Board of Water Supply has announced it will do to the Haiku Stairs, the controversial hiking trail on Windward Oahu, in its January environmental impact statement.

The EIS evaluated the ability of four alternatives to achieve the water board’s objectives, such as eliminating liability risk, supporting the core BWS mission and protecting natural resources. It determined that “managed access” — reopening the stairs to the public under controlled management and supervision, funded by the operator from hiking fees, not BWS water ratepayers — is the alternative that best meets BWS’s objectives.

It’s even better than tearing them out, the EIS says.

If that’s the case, why is BWS proposing to do just that? The water board acknowledges that the stairs are a fabulous resource, but they don’t want the responsibility of managing them as a public attraction, and the city will not commit to taking over in a property transfer.

The city’s reluctance stems in large part from the 30-plus years of myths, misconceptions and misinformation about the stairs, popularized in the media and elsewhere. They’ve created perceptions about the stairs at odds with reality – the main ones being about liability, safety, and financial viability.

And so we are on the verge of making a decision that will lead to the regret Joni Mitchell once distilled in a lyric: “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”

Liability. Far and away, the biggest fallacy about the stairs is that they are a lawsuit waiting to happen. Reopen the stairs, and hikers will be lining up around the island to sue every government entity in sight. And in fact, BWS states in its EIS that liability is the main reason for tearing them out. 

However, when the Friends of Haʻikū Stairs asked what expenditures the city and water board had made over the past 20 years for insurance, court costs, legal settlements, etc., BWS acknowledged there had been none. (EIS, volume 5, p. 534). That we as a city are on the verge of making a decision of this magnitude, based on a total lack of transparency — if not outright misrepresentation — should trouble all of us.

It makes no sense to demolish a spectacular attraction such as the Haiku Stairs. Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2013

Safety. The other main misconception is the related issue of safety, and the need for rescues. Almost every media story about the stairs includes the word “dangerous.” It’s common knowledge, right? Of course they’re dangerous – anyone who sees a photo of them can tell that! 

Except, of the approximately one million people who have climbed the stairs (yes, many of them illegally) since the Coast Guard opened them to the public in the early 1980s, no one has ever been seriously hurt. Indeed, their handrails and metal treads make them much safer than Hawaii’s notoriously slick and muddy clay trails. Good signage posted on proper climbing techniques (e.g., “Don’t do stupid stuff”) would provide an additional measure of safety.

And you don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to do it. People of all ages have done it. You can go at your own pace, and there are five platforms along the way to rest. 

As for the rescues involved, they invariably involve people getting lost (many in the dark) trying to find the stairs from the Moanalua side. Reopen the stairs, allow hikers to climb the proper way and this problem ends.

Financial viability. The common assumption about reopening the stairs is that their operation and maintenance would be cost-prohibitive. On the contrary, a limited-access, fee-based operation run by a private entity, with different rates for out-of-state and kamaaina hikers, is a very feasible business model, and should cost the taxpayer nothing. 

The Friends of Haʻikū Stairs has modeled nine different combinations of rate structures and resident/visitor mixes, and are confident that many of these are economically viable. They would also provide jobs and internships for local students and workers, and channel profits back into the community. 

Contrast this with the $986,000 taxpayer cost to destroy the stairs. In truth, the details and viability of a managed access plan have been known for many years. The only thing missing has been the political will and leadership at the city, state and water board to get it done.

If in fact the stairs can be made safe and self-supporting, who should take them over, and how should they be operated in the public interest? A managed access plan should include provisions for parking, comfort facilities, environmental mitigation, cultural education, liability insurance, maintenance, security features (gates, fencing, etc.) and after-hours security detail to prevent trespassing. 

There is nothing wrong with climbing the Stairs just for the views. But a properly run operation can and should provide much more. 

Climbing Haiku Stairs should be a cultural and educational experience and not just a recreational experience. Hawaiian cultural values should be incorporated at every level. Education on the history of native Hawaiians in Haiku Valley should be an important part of the program. 

Destroy a resource that has brought joy and wonder to nearly a million people?

So should education on native plant restoration and preservation. There is no other site on the islands where so much natural history and ecology are packed into such a short distance: geology, erosion, interaction of topography and climate, botany, ethnobotany, entomology, ornithology, to name a few. 

It might help the city to make a decision if they understood what caused 20,000 people a year to hike the stairs starting in the 1980s, when it was legal to do so – even before the lure of 24/7 social media.  What do these people see that the city and water board do not?  Why do people who normally take an elevator to avoid a flight of steps skip sleep and risk fines and arrest to climb 3,922 steps in an ascent that consumes more than 1,000 calories? 

Governments normally would dedicate the $1 million cost of the stairs’ demolition to fight society’s ills, such as drugs, crime, obesity. So why spend money to get rid of something to counteract all those ills, providing awe, tranquility, beauty, natural highs and thigh-burning exercise.

Destroy a resource that has brought joy and wonder to nearly a million people? After spending $1 million less than 20 years ago to repair them for recreational users, how does this make any sense? Imagine lifting heaven and earth to prevent people from exercising, and you begin to see how truly insane this is.

Destroying the stairs would be an incalculable loss of an irreplaceable recreational, educational, historic and cultural resource. We should not discard our heritage or dismiss its value, as if it means nothing to us, as if it is just another disposable piece of trash. 

There is a real demand from the public that can’t be met any other way. The stairs are irreplaceable, and future generations should get to see why. Find a way to make it work.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a current photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

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