In spite of the blocked access routes, many hikers still found a way to make the climb.

Sneaking up the stairs

Hikers ascend the Haiku Stairs
even though it is still off limits

By Diana Leone

Some people wanted to hike the so-called Stairway to Heaven badly enough over the weekend that they were willing to evade two guards, walk up cement drainage ditches and push through a bamboo grove to get there.

That's what dozens of hikers did Saturday to ascend the Haiku Stairs, the 3,922 steps up the side of the Koolau mountain range that offer a magnificent view of much of Oahu.

Recently repaired by the city at a cost of $875,000, the stairs probably are in better condition now than when they were built in 1942. But they remain officially off limits until the city and the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands agree on how to let the public access them.

Meanwhile, the lure of the vista is turning otherwise law-abiding citizens into trespassers who cut through private and Hawaiian Home Lands land to get to the stairs.

On June 27 the city accepted the work the Nakoa Cos. Inc., the project's contractor, had done to repair the stairs, said company spokeswoman Margo Akamine. "The job is done but the stairs aren't open," she said.

Lee Noa guarded the gate blocking access to the Haiku Stairs in Kaneohe on Saturday. Hiker James Bancroft listened as the guard explained the situation. Bancroft and his friends had planned to climb the stairs.

Within days it became obvious that people had heard that the work was complete and were turning out to make the climb.

On July 1 the city hired Nakoa to have a guard at the base of the stairs tell people they cannot use them yet, Akamine said. The company was told the contract could last a month or longer.

City spokeswoman Carol Costa said the Harris administration is negotiating a deal with another landowner that would allow public access to the base of the stairs without crossing DHHL land.

On the Fourth of July, meanwhile, the Nakoa guard turned away 70 people. Saturday had a similar count.

The problem is, Akamine said, "99 percent of the time, they don't pay attention."

The Nakoa guard working Saturday, who did not want to give his name, said he had turned away 60 or more hikers from a position on the trail leading to the stairs, only to have them sneak behind him to get to the stairs.

At about 3:30 p.m. he moved his post to the base of the stairs, where he could prevent people from going up. It has been frustrating, he said, because people really want to go.

Kaneohe resident Ken Dianovich, a 10-time veteran of the stairs, was surprised to be turned away. He had noticed people going up the stairs for several days and assumed they were open again.

He said he will wait until it is officially open, but hopes it will not be long.

"It was an awesome, gorgeous view," said Austin Smith, who made the climb in the past and brought several friends with him Saturday. In the past, he said, there were no guards, though he admitted he did jump a fence to get into the former U.S. Coast Guard Omega Station.

The station now is owned by Hawaiian Home Lands, which posted a guard at its locked gate for about six months because of vandalism, Chairman Ray Soon said.


James Bancroft said he has lived in Hawaii three years and had hoped Saturday was the day he would finally climb the stairs. He was turned away from the Hawaiian Home Lands entrance by Wackenhut Corp. guard Lee Noa at about 1:30 p.m.

"You can't get there now. They're not letting anybody up," Noa said politely from behind the locked chain-link gate. Asked when the stairs would open, he said, "You have to wait till it's in the paper."

There are two levels to the access dispute, according to Soon: the land under the stairs and access to get to the stairs.

Hawaiian Home Lands owns about one-tenth of the land under the stairs, which it acquired in 1999 along with the 142-acre Haiku Valley floor, including the former Coast Guard station.

Soon said he hopes that within days or weeks the city and his agency can agree to "a license (that) will enable people to cross our land, so the city will ... take on the liability. Both sides want to get it done, and we are close to doing it."

Then remains the second hurdle: getting hikers from the subdivision streets where they are parking to the base of the stairs.

Hawaiian Home Lands does not plan to allow access through the Coast Guard station while it owns that land, Soon said.

Hawaiian Home Lands wants to trade the Coast Guard property, which Soon said is cost-prohibitive to develop into homeland sites, for another piece of city land.

The city has hired Will Chee Planners to come up with a plan for a nature preserve on the land. The idea is supported by the nonprofit Friends of Haiku Stairs, which says on its Web site that it seeks to have the stairs "remain open as a public resource for recreation, exercise and education."

Proposals include converting some of the Coast Guard buildings into a trail-head center, bathrooms and a cultural center.

City Councilman Steve Holmes said that Mayor Jeremy Harris has been handling negotiations with Hawaiian Home Lands. Holmes is not sure how close they are to an agreement on a potential land trade.

Soon said such a deal probably would take several months to complete and might involve a third party, which he declined to name.

Meanwhile, "It's very difficult to control access into the valley," said Holmes, who represents the area and has championed the city acquiring the stairs. "People can hop the fence, crawl under the fence."

Holmes said he is not worried about the city's liability in reopening the stairs to the public.

Though the stairs never were intended for public use, the public has used them, even when railings fell off and were replaced by ropes. They were built by the Navy to access equipment atop the 2,800-foot Puu Keahiakahoe.

Said Holmes, "It was open for 47 years without anybody being seriously injured in all those years."

Before she headed up the stairs Saturday, Heidi Journey, who had never made the climb, was looking forward to it. "I'm excited -- I'm nervous, but excited."

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