Almost 50 years ago, Dave Brown hiked from the top of Olinda Road through Haleakala Crater for the first time. He was mesmerized.

Maui County locator map

The self-described “history buff,” then in his 30s, had come across Haleakala Trail by reading a 1950s guidebook detailing how the footpath once served as a main thoroughfare from Central Maui to Haleakala. For centuries, Hawaiians had used the trail to traverse the island and access the sacred summit for cultural and spiritual practices. Later, in 1866, Mark Twain traveled the same route to the crater, a sight he described as “the sublimest spectacle I ever witnessed.”

Brown returned to the trail a dozen times over the ensuing decades, always struck by how many people must have traveled the same path before him. But it wasn’t until 2005 that he learned the trail was once public property. A century earlier, he read in newspaper archives, the Hawaiian territorial government had unveiled the newly renovated passageway for public use, widening it to 20 feet and clearing it of loose rocks so anyone on horseback would have an easy 8.5-mile trip to the crater.

A portrait of Dave Brown, who leads Public Access Trails Hawaii
Dave Brown has been fighting for access to public trails on Maui for decades. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

“A lightbulb went off,” Brown recalled.

Until then, he’d always thought it was privately owned by Haleakala Ranch. It didn’t take long for him to begin asserting to the ranch and state leaders that the government never abandoned ownership of the historical route, an argument he later won in court.

Now, he’s suing again, saying the trail should be open to everyone — just one small battle in what he sees as a larger fight to ensure that access to Maui’s public lands isn’t lost.

“Public access is going to be the biggest issue for the next hundred years,” Brown said. “But no one seems to notice, because day by day, it decreases.”

In his latest attempt to open the trail, Brown and his nonprofit, Public Access Trails Hawaii, are suing the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources and Haleakala Ranch, alleging that the state had failed to maintain and protect the trail for the good of the people. Instead, it’s been closed for years to the public. The lawsuit also seeks to “ensure that public agencies and officials do not use their positions of power to deprive Hawaii’s current and future generations of their constitutionally protected property rights.”

Officials from DLNR and Haleakala Ranch declined to comment on the lawsuit.

A photo of the Mauna Ala Hiking Club in Nuu
Members of the Mauna Ala Hiking Club trek through National Park Service land, where Dave Brown says he was shooed off the property a few years ago. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

For Brown, the lawsuit is about more than just fighting to open the single trail. He’s watched over the years how a growing number of private landowners throughout the state, armed with security guards and gates, have blocked access to places that have long been used by residents.

Places like the old plantation roads where people used to walk dogs and ride horses, or the coastal trails leading to fishing spots that now run through subdivisions. But there’s also the state-owned public land that’s now restricted, including Pu‘u Ola‘i and Polipoli, where entrance is barred during certain hours.

The threat of losing public access is an issue that many Hawaii communities are grappling with. On Oahu alone, the Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Corp. estimates that almost 30 trails have closed over the last two decades. Just this week, the Honolulu City Council moved to spend $1.3 million to remove the Haiku Stairs, a publicly owned trail that long ago was open, and advocates warn will send people onto more dangerous, unmaintained routes instead.

The Haiku Stairs hike on Oahu has become especially popular in recent years thanks to social media, sending crowds of hikers into neighborhoods and sometimes trespassing through private property. Flickr

“The government doesn’t prioritize these resources,” said Sean Pager, president of the Friends of Haiku Stairs. “Government bureaucrats in some cases have closed trails or denied access they used to allow.”

On Maui, Brown has watched this unfold over the last 50 years. He’s 81 now, and after undergoing heart surgery three years ago, it’s not just the lack of access that now prevents him from doing the hikes he used to. But if he doesn’t fight for their access, he wonders, who else will?

“This is my legacy,” Brown said.

‘No Trespassing’

Brown, an ophthalmologist by trade, went hiking every week for decades. He once did the treacherous trail that leads from Central Maui, through Mauna Kahalawai, to Olowalu. He’s spent a total of 200 days in the crater, often carrying no more than 13 pounds of necessities to supply him and his wife for days at a time.

In 2005, he learned that 3.3 miles of Haleakala Trail that stretched through a private ranch appeared to be owned by the state. It all tied back to 1892, when Queen Liliuokalani approved the Highways Act, a law that said that the government owned all public highways until “abandoned by due process of law.”

A map of Haleakala Trail
A map of Haleakala Trail from 1885 that has been annotated by Public Access Trails Hawaii. Courtesy: Public Access Trails Hawaii

Today, that means that if it can be documented that a trail existed before 1892, the state can still claim ownership — even if parts of the trail run through private property and have been destroyed over time. That was exactly the argument that Brown posed when he sued Haleakala Ranch for the first time in 2011, saying that the ranch was wrong in its claim over the trail.

His nonprofit hired a handful of people to sort through newspaper archives, writings and maps that clearly showed Haleakala Trail was a public route prior to 1892. And after a five-year legal fight, a judge in 2016 issued a final judgment that Haleakala Trail wasn’t owned by the ranch; it was, in fact, owned by the state.

But six years later, a sign that reads “NO TRESPASSING” in red ink still lines the locked gate at the top of Olinda Road, where what’s left of Haleakala Trail begins. In his latest lawsuit, filed May 26, Brown’s nonprofit is alleging that it’s the state’s responsibility to protect and manage the trail for the public — a fight, if Brown wins, he hopes will be “precedent setting.”

“The only way to open this up is to light a fire under the state,” Brown said.

A photo of Haleakala Trail at the top of Olinda Road
Haleakala Trail starts at the top of Olinda Road. Brown hopes his lawsuit will set a precedent for public access. Marine Riker/Civil Beat/2022

In recent decades, it’s not just Maui where residents have watched trails close, usually without ever reopening. On Oahu, many of the hiking trails that have recently been closed crossed through private property, where landowners have said they fear they’ll get sued if hikers are injured — especially after the advent of social media and hiking apps, where almost anyone can learn about routes they may not be physically prepared to do. There’s also been pressure from homeowners in neighborhoods near trailheads, who are sick of the noise and crowds that clog their otherwise quiet streets.

Lena Haapala, who was born and raised on Oahu, understands their frustrations. She’s watched as crowds have flooded trails while chasing after the perfect social media photos, often leaving trash and bringing in invasive species. But in other cases, one of the greatest threats is simply neglect.

Avid hikers on Oahu banded together to save Koko Crater trail from disrepair. Richard Wiens/Civil Beat/2018

Within the last five years, even the Koko Crater Trail, which is surrounded by city-owned property, was at risk. After Haapala started frequently hiking the trail around 2017, she joined the Kokonut Koalition — a group of Koko Crater regulars advocating to save the trail from erosion and decay. Since then, the group worked together with the city to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace and repair the aging stairs, a cause that drew widespread support from locals and visitors alike.

“The authorities and the public figures and people from the city and state, they have to listen to what the community wants,” said Haapala. “Tearing something down or closing it — that’s not the answer.”

Across Hawaii, the burden to maintain and fight for access to Hawaii’s trails has largely fallen to volunteers and community groups. Earlier this week, for example, Brown spent Sunday morning hiking through National Park Service land on the backside of Haleakala, where he’d said he’d been shooed off years before. Another hiking club member said he’d had a similar run-in awhile back.

That morning was the first time Brown had gone hiking with a group in the three years since his heart surgery.

Slowly, he and a group of nine other hikers trekked through a pasture, up the southern slopes of Haleakala. He wore the same small, green backpack that he got as a gift in 1973, the year he moved to Maui. He thinks it might’ve cost $3 at most back then, but he still paid $20 to have it fitted with a zipper.

A photograph of Dave Brown's backpack.
Dave Brown has used the same hiking backpack for almost 50 years. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Today, its fabric has faded from decades in the sun. And Brown’s stamina for hiking isn’t what it used to be, so he usually opts to go out instead on flatter old cane field roads — passageways that didn’t used to be blocked by gates. After fighting for Haleakala Trail, Brown said, maybe that will be his next project: Getting landowners that oversee the old plantation land to open up century-old access roads.

Until that happens, he’ll take his chances.

“As an old guy, they escort you out on a golf cart,” he said with a chuckle. Asked how many times that’d happened over the years on various roads across Maui, he paused, then added: “Probably about 10?”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

Read Public Access Trails Hawaii’s most recent lawsuit below.

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