POLOLU VALLEY, Hawaii Island — One of the Big Island’s most scenic spots is experiencing mounting pressure from tourists and locals alike as interest in nearby real estate also grows, according to trail stewards, lawmakers and others.

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Pololu Valley, located along the North Kohala coast, is defined by forested cliffs that descend dramatically to a legendary black sand beach. A steep trail at Highway 270’s terminus offers hikers a rugged path into the valley where they can experience the shoreline’s often turbulent waters and explore a rich array of natural wonders.

But like so many places in Hawaii, Pololu’s breathtaking beauty is something of a curse. With the advent of social media, the number of people who come to Pololu far exceeds what the area is set up to handle. Couple that with the recent closure of the access road to the similarly popular Waipio Valley, and the crowds are growing.

Pololu Valley as seen from the trailhead. Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2022

“There are very significant traffic and pedestrian safety issues happening there daily,” said state Rep. David Tarnas, who represents the district that includes North Kohala.

On a recent afternoon, a steady stream of cars lined up along the two-lane road, their occupants hoping to snag one of 12 coveted parking spots perched cliffside.

Paul Ishikuro was busy directing traffic along with colleague Jordan Barlan.

“Are you here to hike or just take photos?” the pair repeatedly asked drivers, directing them to any available spots.

Jordan Barlan helps visitors find limited parking at the Pololu Valley lookout. Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2022

Ishikuro is a local fisherman and trail steward. Along with Barlan and a couple of others depending on the shift, Ishikuro works to manage traffic at the Pololu lookout as well as educate visitors about the risks of venturing into the valley. These trail stewards also respond to medical emergencies, which are frequent.

“We had nine helicopter rescues in July and August,” Ishikuro said.

People break legs or twist ankles and can’t walk out. Others fall and hit their heads, losing consciousness. Swimmers get caught in rip currents and emerge – if they’re lucky – too exhausted to hike back to the top, he said.

Since the late February closure of Waipio Valley Road, Ishikuro said he and the other trail stewards are busier than ever, contending with hundreds of visitors every day. Pololu was already a very busy place. But now surfers, hikers and others who might have explored Waipio but can’t have turned their attention to Pololu instead.

Besides the parking issues and medical emergencies, trail stewards also field complaints from private property owners in the valley about trespassers and people relieving themselves on private land or trampling over sacred burial sites.

Jordan Barlan and Paul Ishikuro are trail stewards at Pololu Valley lookout. Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2022

There are no restrooms at the Pololu lookout or on the valley floor.

Whether relief will come in the form of a parking lot, restrooms, or a visitor-registration system remains to be seen. But Tarnas hopes that funding he successfully advocated for will help.

On Dec. 15, the governor released $500,000 in funds to the Department of Land and Natural Resources for planning and design of a parking lot, restrooms and trailhead improvements in consultation with the local community, he said.

The Division of Forestry and Wildlife’s Na Ala Hele program is selecting a consultant for the project. Once the design work is completed, hopefully by year’s end, Tarnas said he’ll return to the Legislature with another funding request to acquire land to build a parking lot and make associated improvements.

A tourist snaps a photo of a companion at the rim of Pololu Valley. Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2022

Two years ago, an attempt was made to work out an agreement with a large property owner in the area to mitigate the public safety issues. The Board of Land and Natural Resources voted in favor of moving forward with a parcel consolidation and subdivision plan.

It would have allowed Surety Kohala Corp. to transfer some private lots it owns on the valley floor to the state in exchange for a 13-lot parcel on the rim. Surety would have also donated to the state a five-acre lot near the lookout for parking and restrooms and 85 acres on the valley floor.

“That project remains in progress in spite of late-blooming opposition to it,” said Bill Shontell, Surety executive vice president, in an email.

Hawaii County planning manager Jeff Darrow said his understanding is that the proposal was dropped due to public opposition.

“We haven’t heard from the applicant in awhile,” he said.

Rep. David Tarnas Jonathan Rawle

Some residents have said in public forums that if improvements are made to Pololu it will only attract more visitors, something they don’t want.

Requests for comment from Department of Land and Natural Resources staff as far as where things stand were referred to the communications office.

“We are still in consultations with the surrounding community and stakeholders and once that process is complete we will have further details,” AJ McWhorter, department spokesman, said in an email Monday.

Tourists use a selfie stick at Pololu Valley. Paula Dobbyn/Civil Beat/2022

Meanwhile, opposition to a proposed 42-acre land sale at the top of Pololu Valley is also growing. Surety Kohala Corp. is seeking a buyer for its property at an asking price of $25 million.

Surety has been divesting its holdings in North Kohala since the mid-1990s when it had some 13,000 acres of former sugar cane lands, said Shontell. It currently has about 1,800 acres left and with the strength of the real estate market in Hawaii, it makes sense to sell, he said.

Surety has no plans to build on the 42 acres and can’t speak to what a future landowner might do. But it would have to conform to all applicable rules and regulations governing density and use of the property, Shontell said.

Nancy Carr Smith, the seller’s real estate agent, said the property is zoned as agricultural land and could be divided into two parcels about 20 acres each. If they wanted to get it rezoned to build higher-density housing, that would be up to them, she said.

More than 880,500 people have signed an online petition opposing the creation of any subdivision on the Pololu ridge.

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