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Waipiʻo Valley lookout on Big Island sparks debate on legal access, conservation

Waipio Kupuna.jpg
Kū Kahakalau
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Waipiʻo families have set up a "kupuna checkpoint" at the top of the road into Waipiʻo Valley to educate motorists desiring access to the valley. The valley road was recently re-opened by Hawaiʻi County after nearly seven months of being closed to the public because of road safety concerns.

The Waipiʻo Valley lookout on Hawaiʻi Island has become a flashpoint in recent weeks in a community debate about public access and conservation.

Hawaiʻi County closed the only road into the valley about seven months ago due to public safety concerns over the road conditions, limiting access to valley residents, farmers and a handful of others.

One citizen group, Mālama i ke Kai ʻo Waipi'o or MaKa, sued the county to open access to surfers, beachgoers and other cultural practitioners.

Two weeks ago, Mayor Mitch Roth amended his original emergency proclamation to allow residents traveling in four-wheel drive vehicles, as well as county-sanctioned tours, back into the valley.

In response, Waipiʻo kūpuna and supporters operating under the name Protect Waipiʻo Valley established what some are calling a checkpoint at the top of the road, asking folks to turn around.

Members of the group say their mission is to educate and encourage residents and visitors to give the valley a chance to rest after decades of overuse.

But MaKa says Protect Waipiʻo Valley is unfairly limiting the public's right to the valley and wants the mayor to provide further enforcement of the recent amendment. The two groups and their supporters met en-masse at the lookout last weekend.

Sheri Salmon, a member of MaKa, says the valley has both personal and familial significance to her.

"It's not just a place to surf or to dive or to fish. It's a place to reconnect to where you come from, and also to your community," Salmon told The Conversation. "We all know and we understand that that place is special and needs to be cared for. People who are asking for access are more than willing to go through those steps."

"I know that it's been labeled as a 'kūpuna checkpoint' but the times where I've gone or close friends or members of the group of MaKa have gone, it's taken two hours to get down there after a bunch of back and forth, or it was a flat out 'no.' It's still not open to the public, or is not open to Hawaiians and kamaʻāina of this island, and it's intimidating at times," Salmon said. "I do think that (kūpuna) have a say and I will listen to them. But at the end of the day, we are supposed to be allowed access."

Protect Waipiʻo Valley disputes MaKa's claim that they are limiting access to the valley.

"We are not enforcing anything. We are asking everybody to please respect the wishes of the kūpuna. And the false statements by MaKa are really confusing people," said Kū Kahakalau, a taro farmer and educator with Protect Waipiʻo Valley.

"One of the things that MaKa believes is that they have no impact," she said. "That's just not true. They're impacting the fish populations for one, right, with ocean activities, but they have also harassed and made it difficult for the people of Waipiʻo that have used Waipiʻo, the beach and estuary, for subsistence fishing."

Kahakalau says valley residents have asked the county for years to establish a cultural center at the lookout to educate visitors on the significance of the valley.

Both organizations hope the county will make a larger effort to involve the community in future decisions about access.

"We understand that the residents, kūpuna, and kalo farmers of the valley are asking that no one enter the valley at this time unless they have an immediate responsibility there or are a resident. Our administration supports their efforts to educate prospective visitors about their sentiments and asks the community to be mindful of their actions as they affect others," Mayor Roth said in a statement last month.

Meanwhile, the county Department of Public Works is investigating what it will take to repair the road, Roth said.

"I don't want to over promise and under deliver. We do know that they've recommended fixing the road in three phases. My direction to public works is we want to get this done as quickly as possible. We want to make the road safe to the community as soon as we can," Roth told The Conversation on Wednesday.

There's a community meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 5 at 5:30 p.m. at the Honokaʻa Sports Complex. This interview aired on The Conversation on Oct. 4, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Savannah Harriman-Pote is a producer for The Conversation and Manu Minute. Contact her at talkback@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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