Crossroads at Kaena


POSTED: Sunday, March 15, 2009

Summer Nemeth has been going to Kaena Point all her life, to fish, gather opihi and stay in touch with her cultural roots.

“;I come from a fishing family,”; said the soft-spoken schoolteacher. “;That's the way my family sustained themselves. My great-great-grandfather was born there.”;

Now she fears for the future of this remote western tip of the island, the last coastal dune ecosystem on Oahu that has not been touched by developers. Kaena Point is home to nesting seabirds, endangered monk seals and rare native plants. According to Hawaiian tradition, it was the “;leaping place”; for departed souls.

Fishermen have long sought solace along its rocky shores, casting in the moonlight. Nature lovers relish its rugged, windswept beauty. But change is coming to the region, and the prospect rattles some regulars.

“;I worry because I think the state's vision for Kaena is more tourist-focused,”; said Nemeth, 31. “;I don't want to see that place change. I don't want any modern structures that might encourage more use because it's so sensitive. The more people that go out there, the more damage gets done.”;

Today, Kaena tells a tale of destruction as well as rebirth. In the 78-acre Kaena Point Natural Area Reserve, at the tip of the peninsula, a fragile ecosystem has sprung back under careful state stewardship since vehicles were banned in 1989. Native shrubs are flourishing, catching the sand and rebuilding the dunes. Thousands of seabirds come calling, including wedge-tailed shearwaters that nest in burrows.

“;I'm speechless. This is magnificent,”; said Bob Odum, of Elmira, N.Y., waving his arm from the cliffs to the surf-lashed coastline. “;This is just so dramatic.”;

At the end of the trail, a monk seal sprawled on its back on the rocky peninsula, sunning its belly and scratching its snout with one flipper. A pair of Laysan albatrosses nuzzled each other near a naupaka bush, while another soared gracefully overhead. Kaena Point hosts one of just three accessible colonies of Laysan albatrosses in the world.

“;Usually when something is rare or endangered, the signs describe it but you don't see it,”; marveled Otto Jacob, of Iron Mountain, Mich., his ruddy face glistening after hiking 2.5 miles to Kaena Point. “;Here they are all around us.”;

Outside the reserve is a different story. From the end of the paved road near Camp Erdman on the North Shore to the gate of the reserve, off-road trucks and ATVs have carved deep gashes in the landscape and let loose cascades of mud. Roaring over sand dunes, they have torn up vegetation and harmed hidden burials. Erosion unleashed by their huge tires is threatening the reef and fishery.

Concerned about the impact of unfettered access, the state is now turning its sights to that area, known as Kaena Point State Park Reserve. It is exploring ideas such as stabilizing and rebuilding its ravaged dirt road, and restricting vehicular access to certain locations. Also on tap is the possibility of creating wilderness camping sites and rustic restrooms.

With a grant from the Hawaii Tourism Authority, the state plans to hire an “;ambassador”; to educate and guide visitors on appropriate behavior. It also wants to put up a fine-mesh fence near the border of the Natural Area Reserve to protect seabirds and their young from predators such as dogs and rats.

In trying to balance competing demands on the region, the state is running into resistance. The push-back began a couple of years ago, when enforcement officers began citing fishermen for illegal camping, part of an effort to keep the homeless from squatting in the park. Irate at being uprooted from their traditional haunts, the fishers turned to the Legislature for help. But neither they nor the Department of Land and Natural Resources like the bill that emerged (HB 645 HD2), and its future looks shaky. It proposes a pilot program for $120 annual passes for “;overnight fishing”; with camping items.

“;All we want to do is fish overnight with protective equipment from the elements, just like we have been doing for all this time,”; said Denis Park, who was born and raised in Waialua. He grew up throwing net, and now casts for papio and ulua, and thinks he should be able to do so for free.

“;I love it because it's serene,”; he said. “;The ocean washes away your troubles. It calms you, listening to the waves crashing on the rocks, seeing the moonlight shimmering on the water.”;

Park and other fishermen bridle at the prospect of further regulation and “;improvements”; proposed for an area they have long roamed freely, sometimes driving their pickups right to the shoreline. But the state says doing nothing would be irresponsible, and vehicular access needs to be limited to combat erosion.

“;We need to do something differently to efficiently manage the resource,”; said Dan Quinn, state parks administrator. “;If we don't do something pretty soon, the reef will be impacted by the runoff. A lot of the fishers say they want to pass on their knowledge and skills to their children. If we don't change the way it's being managed on the ground, that resource won't be there for the kids.”;

The Department of Land and Natural Resources is soliciting input from the community on how to manage the area. The challenge the state faces was clear at a meeting Feb. 25. Huge laminated photographs that gave a bird's-eye view of the entire coastline were laid out across long tables, with grease pencils for participants to mark fishing, cultural and archaeological sites. Some participants obliged, while others refused, saying they used the whole area and did not want any limitations.

Organizers asked three interest groups — fishers, cultural practitioners and conservationists — to each designate one representative to serve on a Kaena Point Advisory Group. After heated discussion, the group of 40 fishers insisted on naming five representatives to the panel. That unnerved the conservationists, who had followed the rules and chosen one person. Laura H. Thielen, chairwoman of the Board of Land and Natural Resources, is expected to resolve that question soon.

Quinn emphasized that people have unrestricted access to the entire Kaena coastline to hike or fish night and day. The only limitations are on camping equipment and where vehicles may go. He was not daunted by the heated discussion at the meeting.

“;It's good to have a lot of community interest and a group of folks who'd like to take responsibility,”; he said. “;The fishers are obviously passionate about the area. We're confident we'll be able to come to a workable solution.”;

“;A number of fishers are already serving as stewards, helping inform people of appropriate activities,”; he added. “;We want to encourage that level of partnership. It's not the state's resources; it's everybody's resource.”;



Possible changes at Kaena Point:

» Hiring an “;ambassador”; to educate and guide visitors
» Installing a mesh fence to keep seabird predators out of the Natural Area Reserve
» Limiting vehicular access to designated locations in the state park
» Developing wilderness camping sites in the state park
» A pilot program to allow “;overnight fishing”; with camping equipment in the state park



Tips for visiting Kaena Point Natural Area Reserve:
» Leave pets at home.
» Enter only on foot or bicycle.
» Stay on marked trails.
» Respect cultural sites.
» Do not disturb nesting birds.
» Carry out any litter you find.

At Kaena Point State Park Reserve:
» Keep vehicles on designated roads.
» Do not drive on or disturb dunes.
» No open fires