Let's Make Our Hiking Trails Safer And More Accessible - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Christian Palmer

Christian Palmer is an environmental anthropologist and long-time resident of Koolauloa.

A recent Civil Beat column by Lee Cataluna analyzed a Senate bill that would have charged hikers for the cost of their rescues if they got into trouble. Although the Legislature deferred the bill on Tuesday, many of the underlying issues that inspired the bill remain unresolved.

“If this is the moment when Hawaii stands up and takes control of the absolute insanity that came with 10 million tourists a year,” Cataluna notes, “then the idea of making individuals and unscrupulous adventure companies liable for the cost of getting them out of trouble is a good place to start.”

While I agree that we need to better manage the impact of more hikers, charging a few who need rescues will do absolutely nothing to organize the chaos around the management of hiking in Hawaii.

There are 10 million visitors because the state has invested in convincing visitors to come. It has not invested in managing the impact of those visitors. To better manage the growing number of hikers in Hawaii, we need to think in four strategic areas: access, liability, maintenance and enforcement.


Hikers in Hawaii have an access problem. As someone who has actively hiked throughout the state for 30 years, I would estimate that at least half of our trails are currently closed. Some of these trails are on public land and the state acts more like a private landowner, with only select areas being open to the public under specific conditions.

Most closed hikes begin on private land. It doesn’t have to be this way. In much of Western Europe there is a “right to roam” that gives everyone the right to hike, even on private lands. When so many trails in Hawaii begin behind “No trespassing” signs, people learn to ignore those signs.

Signs warning hikers not to continue on a trail to the back of Pololu Valley on Hawaii island, where a hiker fell to his death in 1997. Courtesy: RJones0856/Flickr


Multiple trail closures are due to liability laws in Hawaii that make the state and other landowners responsible for poor decisions by hikers or for natural disasters.

In two high-profile cases at Sacred Falls on Oahu and Opaekaa Falls on Kauai, the state paid $8.6 million and $15.4 million to the families of deceased hikers because of a failure to adequately warn hikers. A comparison of mountain trails to beaches illustrates how potential liability is much more important than the actual danger.

Despite an average of 65 drownings in the ocean every year (and subsequent lawsuits), laws here clearly absolve the state of any responsibility and beaches are left open. Can you imagine if Pipeline or Sandy Beach were shut down permanently because someone was injured or killed?

Hiking is inherently dangerous, and we should not fault landowners if hikers decide to take risks. Most states limit the liability of landowners that allow people to pursue recreational activities on their lands. We need unambiguous legislation that protects landowners from lawsuits on public and private lands. The alternative is a reality where every trail is one major accident away from being closed.


One of the reasons hiking in Hawaii is dangerous is that many of the trails are poorly marked and maintained. Although the state’s Na Ala Hele trail program does a great job given its resources, its budget has not grown to keep up with sorely needed maintenance and increased use.

The popular Lanikai Pillboxes trail, for example, is poorly marked and has sections of loose gravel and other hazards that could easily be mitigated with better trail design. This is a hike that regularly requires rescues, and one of the dangers of the hike is not a function of poor decisions by hikers but rather of poor trail construction and maintenance.

Other trails are poorly maintained because they are closed, which makes them more dangerous. Removing liability for the state and landowners will allow more hikes to become legally accessible, which means they can be properly marked and maintained, making them safer to hike.


Cataluna is absolutely right when she notes that enforcement is a key issue. People disobey trespassing laws because people fundamentally understand those laws to be unfair and they feel a right to use these lands. Sacred Falls and Haiku Stairs, despite heavy enforcement and fines, are still being hiked every single day by both locals and tourists. We know this punitive approach doesn’t work, so why do we continue it? Both hikes, if opened and properly managed, would be safer than they are now under failed attempts to close them.

Also, most of the rescues are on popular hikes, like Diamond Head or Lanikai Pillboxes, which are not particularly dangerous. People simply twisted an ankle or had a heart attack. Do we want to keep hikers safe or punish them for getting outside? The Honolulu Fire Department has consistently spoken out against charging for rescues on the grounds that people will hesitate to call and potentially place themselves and their rescuers in greater danger.

Charging hikers for their rescues will not save money nor will it stop people from trespassing or needing rescues. It will make hiking less safe and result in costly legal battles. More and more people are hiking in Hawaii and that is wonderful. Hiking is healthy and it encourages environmental awareness.

We should embrace and manage this increased interest in the outdoors by improving access, reducing landowner liability and funding the maintenance of our trails to make them safer.

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 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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About the Author

Christian Palmer

Christian Palmer is an environmental anthropologist and long-time resident of Koolauloa.

Latest Comments (0)

Well, we should definitely start with this point. No means no.Laws to be unfair? "Right to use these lands." Get over yourself. Unless you are Hawaiian, I’m pretty sure you get no sympathy here.And by the way, we are allocating $35M this fiscal year to Parks maintenance. And that’s to keep up with just basic maintenance. If you want more money allocated to trail upkeep, well we better get ready for a rise in taxes.

KaneoheResidentsUnite · 2 years ago

I think some of the council members just submit the request from a constituent and don't really understand what things mean and how to change things because hey have so much to deal with. I welcome this conversation about trails regarding safety, capacity, and other issues. I think it's astute of Christian to recognize that many of the twisted ankles on the Lanikai Pillbox Trail are probably from loose rocks, and if there were a safe, designated path, there would be fewer injuries. Also, he is right that the rescue personnel said it's not wise to charge for rescues because people wouldn't ask for a rescue until they are in a dire situation, and nobody wants anyone to die to save some money. Also, years ago when someone was swept away out at the Mokes from a big wave I asked DLNR why they didn't have signs up, and they responded because then they would be liable. This has GOT to change because so many people are just plain clueless. The two issues that Christian did not bring up which should definitely be part of the conversation is privacy and noise. There should be enforced trail hours, and NO DRONES allowed with penalties if people are caught flying one over people's houses.

kailua_kamaaina · 2 years ago

The single biggest change that could happen is not directly any of the things listed, but for the voters of Manoa to kick out Sylvia Luke. She singlehandedly blocked the liability bill in 2014, which had near universal support across the board and would have been a dramatic change.

Robert_Thomas · 2 years ago

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