Saturday, September 25, 2004

Fern Grotto State Park, once one of Kauai's premier attractions, had deteriorated over two decades. Thanks to grants and donations, a renovated park reopened this week.

Fern Grotto flourishes
with recent restoration

Government funding and donations
help bring back the park from
20 years of decline

LIHUE » Restoration of Fern Grotto State Park, once one of Kauai's best-known tourist attractions, was completed this week with a combination of government money and donations.

Twenty years of neglect, two hurricanes and the closing of the sugar plantation that provided the water that accidentally created Fern Grotto had all but destroyed the fern-filled cavern and surrounding botanical garden fronting on the south fork of the Wailua River.

Kauai Nurseries & Landscaping has spent the past summer cutting down large trees that formed a canopy blocking the sunlight from other plants. Irrigation systems were restored, invasive plants were removed, concrete was patched and an enormous number of new plants, including ferns, were planted.

The cavern that forms Fern Grotto is ancient and probably was used by Hawaiians in pre-contact times for ceremonies. The natural acoustics of the shallow cave are close to perfect.

The ferns began growing only after sugar was grown on the land 150 feet above the cave. Plantation workers built a catch basin for storm runoff that became known as Reservoir 21. Water from the reservoir percolated through the ground and came out on the roof and walls of the cave.

Maidenhair and Boston Sword Ferns grew to a length of 12 to 15 feet from the roof of the cave. A small waterfall that flowed in front of the cave entrance helped nourish the rich plant life around the grotto itself.

Beginning in 1946, Fern Grotto became a tourist attraction. Walter Smith, founder of what is now Smith's Boat Services and other family-operated tourism ventures along the Wailua River, started his tours with just a rowboat. The company now uses motorized barges carrying as many as 150 passengers.

A second family business, Waialeale Boat Tours Inc., was formed and the two tour companies paid rent to the state for use of both Wailua Marina and Fern Grotto.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Fern Grotto was visited by 600,000 tourists each year and about 1,000 weddings took place at Fern Grotto annually. The two tour companies became a major training ground for Hawaiian hula dancers and singers who conducted the tours.

Edmundo Reyes of Kauai Nurseries & Landscaping Inc., left, and Kamika Smith, general manager of Smith's Motor Boat Service Inc., looked over the restored Fern Grotto State Park yesterday on Kauai. Two hurricanes and a slumping state economy left the park in disrepair. But this summer, state and county grants plus donations gave the park a complete makeover.

The grotto's decline began with Hurricane Iwa in 1982. It accelerated in the early 1990s with the collapse of Hawaii's economy and then Hurricane Iniki in 1992. By 2000, lack of money for state parks had left all the parks on Kauai in disrepair. That same year, the plantation that operated Reservoir 21 closed, the flow of water into the cave stopped and the ferns began to die.

Tourist visits dropped to 150,000 a year, only 25 percent of what they had been two decades before.

Also in 2000, Waialeale Boat Tours stopped paying its rent to the state. A court decision this year evicted the company from the state-owned Wailua Marina.

Help came in 2002 in the form of an amendment to the law governing the Hawaii Tourism Authority, which operates primarily on hotel room tax receipts. It required the HTA to spend $1 million annually (and more of tax collections increased) on state parks and trails.

chart In the first year of the new law, each of the neighbor island mayors was allowed to name a project for funding. Kauai Mayor Bryan Baptiste picked Fern Grotto and offered $50,000 to add to the state's $245,000.

The contractor, Kauai Nurseries & Landscaping, which originally promised to donate $10,000, instead has provided $80,000 in free plants and labor.

"There was still work remaining to be done and I didn't want to leave the project unfinished," Kauai Nurseries & Landscaping owner Lelan Nishak said as he led a press tour yesterday.

Also along on the tour was Walter "Kamika" Smith, the general manager of Smith's Motor Boat Services, which donated almost $40,000 worth of transportation for Nishak's crews and equipment.

Smith stood in the Fern Grotto cavern watching less than a dozen passengers from one of his boats making their way up the trail. "We sure didn't make any money on this trip," he frowned. But later a barge almost filled with tourists brightened him considerably.

"The main thing this project will allow us to do is to allow us to emphasize Fern Grotto again," Smith said. "It was in such bad shape, we didn't want to raise anyone's expectations, so we've had to talk about the river and its history and, oh, by the way, we have this Fern Grotto place on the tour."

"It will return to its rightful status as our centerpiece attraction," he said.



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