Here & There #15: Haiku Stairs

Here & There #15: Haiku Stairs

Originally published in Kyle Frost's Here & There email newsletter available from Mountain Gazette. Subscribe here.

Stairway to heaven, no more

In 1942, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, work began on stairs to assist with the building of a powerful radio antenna in the Haʻikū Valley on the island of Oʻahu. Over the course of three weeks, two men assembled the first version of what would become known as the Haʻikū Stairs, or the “Stairway to Heaven.” The stairs scale a steep ridgeline, leading to a (now) decommissioned radio antenna platform and sweeping views of the surrounding Ko'olau mountain range.

This month, over 80 years after they were initially constructed, work begins on dismantling the stairs completely.

Credit: Kalen Emsley

In the 1950s, the original wooden stairs were replaced by the Coast Guard with the metal, modular, stairs that remain today. Access was allowed for many years but they were closed in 1987 after vandalism and liability concerns. The stairs have been closed to public access since then, no matter what ‘workaround" your favorite travel blogger claims to have.

In 2003, the stairs were fully repaired, costing the city around $875,000. However, no plan was ever put in place to properly re-open the stairs and allow public access, leaving them in limbo. In 2015, the Board of Water Supply found out that they technically owned the stairs. Due to concerns about liability, they opted to disallow all access – including from Friends of the Haʻikū Stairs (FHS), a citizen volunteer group who had previously accessed the stairs on a yearly basis to do maintenance. This meant an end to work like tightening bolts, removing invasive species, and removing problematic trees. The Board of Water Supply eventually transferred ownership of the stairs to the city of Honolulu.
Why are the stairs being dismantled?

In 2021 the city council voted to dismantle the stairs, and eventually granted a private contractor the contract to do so – at a quoted cost of $1.3 million. The mayor's office cited liability concerns and disturbances caused by trespassing hikers. “Due to rampant illegal trespassing, Haiku Stairs are a significant liability and expense for the city, and impact the quality of life for nearby residents,” Honolulu City Council member Esther Kiaʻāina told Hawaii News Now. The city spends around $250,000 a year for officers to enforce and fine trespassers, although this approach has seemed to have little effect.

Multiple rescues occur in the vicinity of the stairs each year, although many are on the “alternative” approach from Moanalua. This trail, while “open” is completely unmaintained and very challenging. And although this trail is accessible, the stairs themselves are trespassing, no matter where you approach them from.

The mayor and city council feel that removal was in the best interests of the local community. At a recent news conference Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi said “The reality is we really believe the greater majority feel good about this as we do, and this decision was made predicated on our respect for the people who live in and around the entrance to the stairs, respect for our ‘aina, respect for the future and the past, history and culture of Haiku Stairs, what it stood for.”

Social media

Judging by the number of blog posts written and photos shared of the stairs, enforcement of the closure has been lax. You certainly wouldn’t guess that this is a location that has been closed to public access for over 30 years. One of the top Google results is a blogger who spends several paragraphs talking about how he knows it’s trespassing, how other people have gotten fines, how “nervous” he was, how he still went, was confronted by a local resident, and still climbed the stairs. There are hundreds of similar articles.

While the stairs have been climbed by locals for decades, it’s this more recent growth around social media and tourism that drove some of the most obvious negative effects. As visibility and popularity grew, local residents tired of dealing with hikers traipsing through their properties in the middle of night to avoid guards posted near the access point during the day. It’s easy to point at social media and entitled/inconsiderate tourists for much of the negative press surrounding the management of the stairs.

Why not pursue managed access?

Some locals were in favor of renovating the stairs and opening them to the public in a controlled way. Friends of the Haʻikū Stairs and others maintain that a managed access plan would have been the better solution. In 2020, following an environmental impact report, “Fourteen different groups expressed interest and submitted detailed proposals [to manage the site] (including Kualoa Ranch, Ko‘olau Foundation, Hui Ku Maoli Ola, and our own organization)”. These proposals never moved forward; the administration’s tenure expired and the newly elected city council moved in favor of removal. The FHS plan involved things like maintaining the stairs, limiting to 80 people per day, liability waivers, and charging for access (with a tiered rate for residents, military, and educational groups). Their proposed planning documentation also provides a plan for trailhead access via shuttles and/or a nearby access road that would bypass the local neighborhood.

At a 2021 City Council hearing, “1336 residents, representing more than 90 percent of public comments received, testified or submitted testimony opposing the C&C’s demolition plan during a City Council hearing.” While opinions were split, a majority of people who spoke were in favor of keeping the stairs.

The FHS released a recent statement, saying “the Haiku Stairs are an important part of Hawaii’s heritage. Demolishing them is a senseless waste of taxpayer money and an act of vandalism. The City should heed the majority of Oahu residents--and Haiku Valley residents--who want to save the Stairs, not destroy them.”

Revenue projections from the FHS plan

What's the story here?

It all represents an interesting conundrum. On one side are people who felt that the stairs were a man-made blight on a natural landscape, too dangerous, and an unmanageable nuisance for the local community. Others saw them as a unique historical artifact with meaning to many local residents and believed that they could have been an effectively managed attraction for everyone’s benefit.

“The stairs are being removed because of influencers” is an easy headline, but doesn’t tell the whole story. However, all those visitors, photos, and blog posts shaped perceptions, created friction, and gave reasons (warranted or not) to the people with the power to make decisions. This isn’t the only example of special places that live somewhere in a gray area of public access either. There are “local” trails, underground smoke shacks, shrines, totems, and memorials all across the world. Would this have been the outcome without thousands of people flaunting their visitation and sharing it for internet points?

As for the stairs, starting next week all 664 stair modules will be removed by helicopter and dismantled. In a more recent development, they may be relocated to nearby Kualoa Ranch (a 4,000-acre private nature reserve perhaps most well known for being the site of Jurassic Park). Is this the rescue of an iconic attraction, or as FHS says, a “world-class hiking experience accessed by the public for generations will be removed from its historic location and converted to a “visitor attraction” reserved for high-spending tourists.”?