On the bumpy, unpaved road to a secluded Molokai beach, the appearance of twin X’s in the dirt, denoting the placement of a future gate that would block vehicular beach access, has sent rumors and outrage flying.

maui locator badge“It’s the talk of the town over here,” said Nelson Rapanot, a Molokai-born hunting outfitter.

“That’s one of the most pristine and one of the most beautiful beaches, and a lot of the locals spend a lot of time down there — nice sandy beach, unbelievable fishing, perfect for the family,” he said. “Then all of a sudden, somebody wants to put up a gate? That has a lot of people up in arms.” 

Molokai Ranch, which owns the land traversed by the access road, told Civil Beat that it is indeed contemplating the possibility of a gate to prevent vehicle access to the beach and the environmental degradation it believes vehicles cause.

Before the ranch’s confirmation Friday, no one interviewed by Civil Beat could say exactly who wants to build the gate — or why. In the absence of information, an online petition emerged — “Aole Kawakiu Gate” — garnering nearly 500 signatures, about 7% of the island’s population, in three days.

“Whoever it is and whatever the reason, they haven’t talked to this community about it,” said longtime Hawaiian activist Walter Ritte. “And on Molokai if you don’t talk to the community, you’re taking a chance.”

Public comments on the online petition range from, “Generations of families accessed this beach and always took care of it on our own. Denying access is wrong,” to “I NO LIKE DA GATE.”

Vehicles left tire tracks on Kawakiu Beach, despite a Hawaii state law that prohibits motorized vehicles on beaches. Courtesy: Molokai Properties Limited/2021

On Friday, Molokai Ranch General Manager Todd Svetin said that the ranch is exploring the possibility of erecting a gate on the road to Kawakiu to prevent vehicles from driving to the beach and causing further damage.

It all started, he said, when someone fed up with littering and illegal activity at Kawakiu Beach sent the ranch a series of photographs taken on Oct. 5 that makes a case for poor environmental stewardship.

Some of the photos show a sandy beach carved up by tire marks. Others spotlight trash, including used toilet paper and a bullet-ravaged juice can, left behind by beachgoers. There’s also documentation of what appears to be damage to a sea turtle nesting site.

Although the ranch doesn’t have any jurisdiction over the beach, Svetin said he’s compelled to partner with state officials to find a solution because the ranch owns the land the access road traverses.

Litter on the beach
Trash on the edges of Molokai’s Kawakiu Beach as photographed by a concerned resident. Courtesy: Molokai Properties Limited/2021

He said he hopes it doesn’t come to that.

“We would like for the agencies that regulate what happens on the beaches to be able to resolve this without (the ranch) having to put up a gate to block it,” he said, adding that access has so far not been limited to Kawakiu in any way and, regardless of whether a gate goes up eventually, pedestrian beach access will continue to be protected.

In some ways, the controversy over beach access rights, and good environmental stewardship, has echoes of a flare-up nearly a half-century ago when a small band of Molokai residents formed Hui Alaloa, a protest group advocating for access to the island’s natural resources — including Kawakiu.

The target of the group’s first protest in 1975 was Molokai Ranch, which owns nearly a third of the island and, at the time, had erected fencing and “no trespassing” signs to stop residents from accessing certain beaches and forests.

Hui Alaloa succeeded in compelling the ranch to reopen the road to Kawakiu, among other places. According to Ritte, this first big win emboldened him to take on bigger fights against what he viewed as injustices, including the Navy using Kahoolawe for bombing exercises.

“Previous to that, Hawaiians accepted everything the government told them,” Ritte said. “So this was like, ‘OK, we’ve had enough,’ and it was the initial event that gave Hawaiians a victory and because it was successful, the Hawaiian community on Molokai began organizing and protesting different things.”

A concerned resident photographed what appears to be damage to a turtle nesting area at Kawakiu beach. The photos were sent to Molokai Ranch and Maui County. Courtesy: Molokai Properties Limited/2021

Another former Hui Alaloa member is Molokai fisherman Kelson “Mac” Poepoe, who said that, to him, the current stir over Kawakiu access reminds him of what happened not long after the success of the mid-1970s protests. 

As the years went by, Poepoe said, people started trashing Kawakiu. People were using the perimeter of the beach as a toilet, he said. Some folks would have a big picnic and then leave behind all the rubbish. 

“When we fight for access to any property we become the caretakers,” he said. “It’s not just, ‘We want access,’ and we don’t give a crap what happens to it after.”

For this reason, Poepoe said that he would like to see the road to Kawakiu limited to foot traffic.

“All these people that are fighting for access, their reason is just about driving. And that is against what I believe in,” he said. 

“The trail is not for driving, it’s for walking,” he said. “When you walk, you cannot take too much stuff. But when you drive you can take everything that your car can carry and that’s the problem.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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