With their dizzying vistas and lush terrain, Hawaii’s famous Haiku Steps first beckoned thrill seekers decades before Instagram, their steps winding over a mountain range and sometimes above the clouds.
Guards, ‘no trespassing’ signs and the threat of fines have done little to stop hikers from climbing the 3,922 steps, known as the ‘Stairway to Heaven’, to a former radio station used by the Navy during World War II. According to critics, social media has only encouraged them.
But the Forbidden Path may be nearing its final step: Last week, the mayor of Honolulu ordered the removal of the stairs, on the recommendation of the city council, over safety, trespassing and environmental concerns.
Officials said the Haiku stairs, which have no public entrance, are too difficult to maintain and cause a nuisance to the owners of private property whose land has been taken by invaders. Honolulu is budgeting $1 million to dismantle the stairs, which could be done as early as next year.
In a statement on Sept. 14, Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi said the community could no longer hold the stairs.
“We recognize the interest the stairs have for certain community groups; however, issues such as trespassing, personal injury, invasive species and the overall safety of the public cannot be ignored,” said Mr Blangiardi. “It is fundamentally inappropriate to allow a widely used tourist attraction to enter through this residential area, which does not have the capacity to provide suitable facilities or parking.”
The decision sparked years of debate over the fate of the metal stairs and railings, which some groups said should be preserved. Some parts of the stairs, which cut through mud and thick vegetation, have shifted.
Friends of Haiku Stairs, a non-profit organization founded in 1987, vowed to try and block the removal, which the president called “misguided.”
“Once the stairs are gone, they are gone forever,” said group president Dr. Vernon Ansdell, Tuesday.. “It’s unique.”
dr. Ansdell said the Haiku Stairs, built in 1942 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor last December, and named for the valley below, had a relatively clean safety record. He said the liability concerns were exaggerated and as many as 20,000 people climbed the stairs when they were open to the public and when the Coast Guard took over access.
According to the conservation group, thousands of people have continued to climb the stairs every year since they were closed in 1987.
“It’s stairs,” Dr. Ansdell said. “It has railings. You go up and you go down. If you use a minimum of common sense, you won’t get hurt. One person died of a heart attack. You can’t really blame the stairs for that.”
dr. Ansdell said that in most of the emergencies on the mountain, people climbed a different path, adding that he had climbed the Haiku steps 10 times.
But at a meeting of the Honolulu City Council on Sept. 8, the body’s vice president expressed concern about liability, saying too many property owners were involved to develop a management plan for the stairs.
“As we all know, due to rampant illegal violations, the Haiku Stairs is a significant burden and burden for the city and impacts the quality of life of the local residents,” said the council’s vice president, Esther. Kiaʻaina. “I am convinced that removing the stairs is the only viable option to reduce the city’s liability, reduce nuisance to local residents, increase public safety and protect the environment.”
The council voted unanimously to recommend the removal of the Haiku stairs, a move the Honolulu Star advertiser endorsed in a July editorial titled “It’s time to let go of Haiku Stairs.”
“There are other safer, legal hikes to get to great ridge views that everyone can enjoy,” the paper wrote.
Charles Burrows, a Native Hawaiian culture practitioner and environmental science teacher, wrote in the same paper a month later that it would be a huge loss if the stairs were torn down. He noted that $1 million in tax dollars had been spent on repairs to the stairs in 2002.
“Anyone who has climbed to the top of the Haiku stairs would never advocate breaking them down,” He wrote. “Can you imagine us closing our beach parks like Sandy Beach, Hanauma Bay or Pipeline permanently due to liability issues? They remain open despite an average of 65 ocean drownings here a year.”
Friends of Haiku Stairs have suggested transferring control of the stairs to a private seller, who would pay for security and maintenance through fees charged to walkers. Eighty people could climb the stairs per day under a managed access plan supported by the group, with an annual total of up to 20,000.
“We know hikers will pay to go there,” said Dr. Ansdell.