Monday, April 26, 1999

Big Isle trail may
get historic status

The Ala Kahakai on the
Big Island could become a
National Historic Trail

By Pete Pichaske
Phillips News Service


WASHINGTON -- The trail is centuries old and the idea of naming it a national treasure goes back a decade. But for the first time, a Senate committee last week discussed a proposal to protect the Ala Kahakai, a sometimes spectacular 175-mile-long trail ringing the Big Island, as an official National Historic Trail.

The comments were nothing but favorable.

"The Department of the Interior strongly supports this," said Katherine Stevenson, associate director of the National Park Service.

"Designating the Ala Kahakai as a National Historic Trail ... would help us preserve one of the most important legacies of Hawaii's indigenous history and culture."

"Ala Kahakai is the longest prehistoric and historic Hawaiian trail," said Hugh Montgomery of the Big Island, a board member of E Mau Na Ala Hele, a Big Island trails organization, who testified at the hearing.

"More events of historic importance took place on and adjacent to it than in any other area in the islands of Hawaii."

Once known as the Ala Loa (Long Trail), the Ala Kahakai was the major land route on the Big Island for centuries, connecting 600 communities and 120,000 people.

On the heels of a federal study recommending historic designation, Hawaii Sens. Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye are sponsoring a bill to do just that.

The bill was considered last week by the parks subcommittee of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Montgomery and Deborah Chang, who founded E Mau Na Ala Hele and also testified last week, conceded that objections have been raised in Hawaii to the national designation.

Some fear it will open sacred sites to vandalism, while others fear that private landowners won't cooperate. (About 20 percent of the trail traverses private land.)

The two said the fears, while legitimate, were unfounded.

"I feel it unrealistic and naive to think that the simple act of leaving the trails alone will afford protection" from vandalism, said Chang. "If the Ala Kahakai were to become part of the national trails system, it would receive badly needed management and protection ... It is easier to get away with vandalizing sites that are less visible."

She said the federal government would be better able to protect the trail than could state or local governments, which are facing budget cuts. "I don't think our trail system could do this alone," she said.

Montgomery said that while there is no unified position on the trail among native Hawaiians, the historic designation has "the support and literal blessing of numerous kupuna."

As for landowners, he said he has contacted all who own more than a quarter-mile of the trail, and all were receptive to the idea of a national designation.

One possible hold-up to the national designation is cost. Stevenson said it would cost $3.6 million for the archaeological surveys, trail head development and other needed changes, and $250,000 a year in maintenance. More than one senator at the hearing noted that the National Park Service does not have enough money to maintain the parks it now owns.

Still, Akaka, a member of the parks subcommittee, was optimistic about the bill's chances. An aide said he was confident the bill will pass the energy committee, after which it will be considered by the full Senate.

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