Protecting The Past By Managing The Future Of Ka‘ena Point

A new federal designation could bring more money for a place brimming with cultural and environmental resources. But some worry it could bring more people too.
Ka‘ena Point State Park on the westernmost tip of Oahu. Photo: Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2022

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Thomas Shirai traces his family’s ties to Ka‘ena all the way back to the Great Mahele of 1848. Before the historic change in Hawaii’s land tenure system, Shirai’s great-great grandfather, Kaaemoku Kakulu, was the last konohiki, or caretaker, of Kawaihapai, a land division in Waialua.

Raised in a fishing family, he remembers the abundance of Ka‘ena’s waters because of the many fishing shrines, or ko‘a, along the coastline. The plethora of fish, urchins, limu and opihi made the grounds a prized backyard resource.

“Can you imagine living in that time? It was like a sashimi platter,” Shirai said.

The state has implemented policies and installed physical barriers to try to preserve the pristine makeup of the land, its cultural history and its geological resources. But Shirai, like others, has still seen fewer fish and more locals and tourists visit Ka‘ena State Park in recent decades, leaving questions about what management could look like for such a special place on the island.

A new federal designation, which cleared the House earlier this year and now awaits Senate approval, could bring more money and support to maintain roughly 1,500 acres at Ka‘ena. But there is concern that the congressional resolution to make it Hawaii’s first national heritage area could also attract more attention, and in turn use, at a time when officials are also confronting the effects that climate change may have on Ka‘ena.

Kaena Point Wide
Protected by a predator-proof fence, seabirds nest in the Natural Area Reserve at Ka‘ena State Park. Ka‘ena Point sits at the northwestern tip of Oahu. Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2022

According to the Bishop Museum’s Sites of Oahu, up until the 1900s, Hawaiians lived at Ka‘ena in small fishing and farming villages. In 1898, Oahu Railway and Land Company laid down a track around the point, connecting the north and west sides of the island to transport sugarcane along plantation towns. Between World War I and II, it was a strategic location for military personnel to set up camp and remnants of a Coast Guard watch tower built in 1920 still remains.

Along with its historical abundance, Ka‘ena is also a geological wonder, somewhere scientists and environmentalists say is reminiscent of the Northwestern Hawaiians Islands’ mostly unspoiled natural beauty. In 2014, a team of scientists led by University of Hawaii geologist John Stinton reported on Ka‘ena volcano and found it to be one of the oldest volcanoes to form on Oahu. Remnants sit underwater thousands of feet past Ka‘ena Point, the most northwestern tip of the island.

Today, Ka‘ena State Park is managed by the Department of Natural Land and Resources. The park encompasses 853 acres from Makua to Waialua on Oahu. Hundreds of thousands of guests visit the grounds each year.

“We’re just managing a slice of time and trying to optimize people’s experience without having them mess up the resource,” said Kurt Cotrell, who oversees the State Parks Division.

His division co-manages the location with the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife. The latter is focused on the portion that was designated in 1983 as a natural area reserve. Most of DLNR’s current management of the area is centered on its visitors. Excessive off-roading before the 1980s had not only damaged the ancient sand dunes but also the nesting grounds of seabirds that had previously frequented the area. Since 2015, visitors must have an annual special vehicle access permit to be able to drive pass the park’s gate.

In 2011, a predator-proof fence was completed to protect the seabird colonies from the likes of cats and mongoose. Since putting in the almost half-mile long fence, Chris Miller from DOFAW said that seabird populations have boomed, with a whopping 13,479 wedge-tail shearwater nests in 2021.

His team saw their first black-footed albatross nest there last year, a feat for the endangered species.

“The resources do fine on their own,” Cotrell said. “It’s the people that mess it up.”

Lesley Macpherson had been living out at Ka‘ena for decades before becoming the park’s lead technician. She teaches visitors about the history of the place while also enforcing its permitting policies and rules. Often she can be found with school groups, driving a Polaris to check for permits and making sure no one is messing with the birds, endangered monk seals and other fauna on its shores.

Kaena DLNR Leslie Macpherson
Lesley Macpherson drives up and down Ka‘ena State Park to make sure everyone there has a permit and follows park rules. She picks up litter left by visitors to dispose of properly. Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2022

One of the area’s most well-known cultural sites is a large pohaku, or rock, located within the fence. In Hawaiian tradition, the leina ka‘uhane is a “leaping rock” where wandering souls pass into the next realm. Macpherson once reprimanded a woman taking a selfie with her dog on the leina.

“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” Cotrell said. “In order for us to protect the resources, we have to educate people on its value but at the same time, it also draws people in.”

Higher Tides, Higher Temperatures

Now officials are grappling with the effects of climate change too. Rising seas and hotter temperatures will make it harder for people to get out there, not just hikers and fishermen but also practitioners and caretakers who have a kuleana, or responsibility, to cultural sites like the leina.

Ka Lei Aina Ali‘i, a group of local residents dedicated to taking care of cultural sites, has been going to Moka‘ena Heiau since 2021 to restore the sacred space in Ka‘ena’s mountains, Kuaokala.

Kaena Mokaena Heiau
Members of Ka Lei Aina Ali‘i pull weeds and cut down the grass surrounding Moka‘ena Heiau, located in Kuaokala. Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2022

With higher seas comes higher chances of big swells, and hurricanes and tsunamis could have more of an impact on Ka‘ena, not to mention the chance of increased drought and wildfires in an already arid climate. Chip Fletcher, interim dean at the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at the University of Hawaii Manoa, has been taking his classes out to Ka‘ena for years to study the beach rock, reef and coral.

“It is a region that holds lots of clues to the evolution of the islands,” Fletcher said.

With sea level rise, Fletcher says Ka‘ena will actually look similar to what it did 130,000 years ago before the last ice age when the sea level was 20 feet higher than it is today.

“This is an ecosystem that is on the mend,” Fletcher said. “If left alone by humans, they stand a much better chance of adapting to climate change.”

A Different Kind Of Tourism?

Congressman Ed Case has pitched Ka‘ena Point as a potential national heritage area twice.

National heritage areas are places designated by Congress “where natural, cultural, and historic resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally important landscape.” There are currently 55 nationwide. If passed, Ka‘ena would be the first in Hawaii.

If Ka‘ena becomes an NHA, it would not be federally owned like a national park. Rather, the National Park Service would partner with the areas’ organizers and distribute federal funding. Case says that these initiatives would heavily involve the community to plan what management and protection of Ka‘ena would be.

“By design, National Heritage Areas are managed by local communities and they will be able to chart the course for that space,” Case said.

Kaena Ka Lei Aina Alii
Ka Lei Aina Ali‘i crew take care of places like Moka‘ena and other cultural sites around Oahu. Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2022

He said that when he originally proposed Ka‘ena for this designation in 2020, it was later in session and may have gotten overlooked. He feels more confident bringing it up now in 2022. The bill proposes a three-year study that will take inventory of all the natural, historical and cultural resources in Ka‘ena and determine if they tell a nationally important story.

The study will also look into potential partnerships with organizations who want to oversee heritage area activities.

“Consider the alternative,” Case said. “It is becoming very problematic for the state to adequately preserve, protect, maintain and operate Ka‘ena Point.”

One benefit of a national heritage area is the influx of federal funding, up to $1 million annually, to create jobs, bring revenue to local governments and communities through heritage tourism.

According to the National Park Service, NHAs bring in $5.50 for every $1.00 of federal investment. In 2019, the Sangre de Cristo NHA in southern Colorado brought in $99.4 million, $8.7 million in state and local taxes and created 1,418 jobs.

At first glance, leaders from Ka Lei Aina Ali‘i said it just sounds like tourism. Shirai believes traffic to the area has depleted the fish populations he remembers from his youth and proposed a one-day closure of the point each week, similar to Hanauma Bay, so that Ka‘ena can take a break.

“We got this public access but it’s overused,” Shirai said. “We have to let Ka‘ena heal.”

The bill to designate Ka‘aena as a national heritage area, co-introduced by Congressman Kai Kahele last year, passed the House in March. It is waiting to be heard by the Senate, currently sitting before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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