Kupuna, taro farmers, residents and lineal descendants of Waipio Valley blocked access to the county road that leads down into the iconic valley on Monday.

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The blockade is a protest over Mayor Mitch Roth’s recent decision allowing limited access for Hawaii island residents, county-permitted tour operators and those seeking to practice Native Hawaiian customs and traditions.

People entering the valley must travel in covered four-wheel drive vehicles. Access on horseback, all-terrain vehicle, by foot, or riding in the back of pick-up trucks is prohibited, according to the mayor’s announcement Thursday.

Native Hawaiians and residents protested the reopening of Waipio Valley Road on Monday.
Native Hawaiians and others protested the reopening of Waipio Valley Road on Monday. Screenshot/Protect Waipi‘o Valley Facebook page/2022

Roth amended his emergency proclamation from Feb. 25 that closed the road to virtually anyone except valley residents, taro farmers and a few others. The closure caught many people off guard and sparked protests and litigation from residents who regularly visit Waipio including cultural practitioners, surfers, fishermen, recreational users and others.

Protesters on Monday said Roth’s decision to reopen the road to certain groups is wrong and was made without their consultation.

“This lack of due process to consider the input from Waipio kupuna, farmers and ohana in making decisions that impact them and the valley can not and will no longer be tolerated,” protesters said in a joint statement, issued by a group called Protect Waipio Valley.

Waipio Valley road closed.
Waipio Valley road was closed in February by emergency proclamation. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“It is the County’s civil duty to protect community members and address significant community concerns, which Hawaii County Mayor Mitchell Roth has chosen to ignore, in response to legal threats by special interest groups,” the statement continued.

Roth disagrees. In a statement issued Monday afternoon, Roth said he and his staff have listened closely and have consulted with all sides in the Waipio debate.

His office has done mediation with plaintiffs regarding access rules, listened to community concerns and continued to review expert information, according to the mayor.

“The amended declaration and rules reflect all of those factors,” Roth said.

Still, he expressed some sympathy with the protesters.

“We understand that the residents, kupuna, and kalo farmers of the valley are asking that no one enter the valley at this time unless they have an immediate responsibility there or are a resident. Our administration supports their efforts to educate prospective visitors about their sentiments and asks the community to be mindful of their actions as they affect others,” Roth said.

Mayor Mitch Roth plans to form an advisory group on Waipio Valley within the next few months. Tim Wright/CivilBeat/2022

A spokeswoman for Malama I ke Kai o Waipio, a group of ocean users who sued the county and pushed for the road’s reopening, said members respect the right of peaceful protest that’s happening at the Waipio Valley Lookout.

“Being able to voice concerns is really important, and there are many concerns in Waipio that have not been heard so I think this is one way to be heard,” said spokesperson Heather Nahaku Kalei.

Kalei blamed Roth for issuing the emergency closure back in February, saying decisions over Waipio management should result from a large, stakeholder process not by government decree.

“I hope he is taking a hard look at this,” she said.

One thing both sides seem to have in common is that commercial tour operators are unwelcome in Waipio Valley, one of the Big Island’s most popular visitor destinations.

Waipio Valley Road was initially closed over a disputed rockfall hazard study. Flickr: Wasif Malik

Roth’s decision to reopen the road allows licensed tour operators to bring visitors to the valley as long as they have newly issued county permits.

As of Monday afternoon, no permit applications from tour operators had been received, said Cyrus Johnasen, the mayor’s spokesman.

“It’s pretty clear that tour operators are not desired in Waipio and I urge him not to issue permits,” said Kalei.

Waipio kupuna, taro farmers and others who want the road to remain closed said allowing tour operators back into the valley directly violates their concerns.

For many years, they have called for the road to be open only to farmers, residents and individuals who “give back to Waipio, as cultural practitioners, working the loi, or taking care of Waipio’s unique natural and cultural resources,” according to their news release.

Steve Strauss, an attorney who sued the county over the road closure, said he doesn’t support the notion of limiting access to the valley over a county road to those fortunate enough to live or work in Waipio.

“In Hawaii, ocean access is a fundamental constitutional right of the people,” Strauss said by email.

An advisory group on Waipio Valley access and management is expected to be formed by the mayor within the next few months.

Strauss and others will likely propose new regulatory measures over Waipio Valley access to the County Council for consideration soon.

Roth says he’s prepared to be at the table.

“We look forward to continued discussions regarding access to the roadway and encourage everyone who is a stakeholder to participate in those meetings to ensure their manao is represented,” the mayor said.

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