Waipio Valley protestors block access to sacred Hawaiian land after partial reopening

HONOLULU — Over 150 people convened at the entrance of Hawaii Island's Waipio Valley access road Monday to peacefully gather in opposition to the "disheartening" partial reopening of the road to tour operators.

Last week, County of Hawaii Mayor Mitch Roth announced that “all Hawaii Island residents, county-permitted tour company operators, and those seeking to practice their Native Hawaiian traditional and/or customary rights" can enter the valley in four-wheel drive vehicles starting Monday.

Since February, the mayor closed the valley to nearly everyone except Waipio Valley residents, farmers, and some others in an emergency proclamation because the access road's "hazardous conditions" posed a "threat to public health and safety." A geotechnical report found the steep, narrow road to be prone to landslides and rockfalls.

Those in opposition to Roth's decision feel like his new amendments are in "direct violation of past and present safety concerns" of those wanting to protect the valley, according to a statement from the group Protect Waipio Valley. "This lack of due process to consider the input from Waipio kupuna (elders), farmers, and ohana in making decisions that impact them and the valley cannot and will no longer be tolerated."

"The impact of all this is huge," Ku Kahakalau, a Native Hawaiian educator and activist with Protect Waipio Valley, told USA TODAY. Kahakalau lives by the lookout at Waipio Valley.

Located along the northern coast of Hawaii Island, Waipio Valley, or "Valley of the Kings" is a sacred, lush valley where royals like King Kamehameha I once grew up. It is considered a wahi pana, or sacred site, for its role in Hawaiian history and culture.

The wet and fertile valley has also been a place where people have tended to lo'i, or taro fields, for many years. The raw beauty of the valley, including waterfalls and a black sand beach, has also made it one of the island's top tourist destinations.

But heavy traffic has eroded the road and the valley over the years.

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The protestors would like for only taro farmers, valley residents, and those with cultural practices that contribute to Waipio Valley to be allowed access, not those "taking without giving anything back," Kahakalau said.

The type of vehicles allowed into the valley is also a "huge concern" for protestors. "What was a complete surprise and the part that really agitated all of us to no end to the point where I was physically sick... was the fact that we couldn't go down to the valley in the same way that we had always gone down," she said. Many valley taro farmers, according to Kahakalau, ride horses or ATVs down because there is "less impact" on the road.

Kahakalau said the gathering is "a wonderful celebration of the vibrancy of the Waipio community" and people have been there all night since early Monday.

Those who approach the entrance are politely asked to respect the wishes of the elders and turn around, Kahakalau said.So far, there have been no issues.

When Roth closed the road in February, a lawsuit was filed by some who wanted to restore access to Hawaii Island residents who want to use the valley for activities like fishing and surfing.

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"Hawaii Island is a place of great respect and aloha, and we are confident that our residents and visitors will make decisions representative of such," Roth said in a statement emailed to USA TODAY by County spokesperson Cyrus Johnasen. "We look forward to continued discussions regarding access to the roadway and encourage everyone who is a stakeholder to participate in those meetings to ensure their manao (thoughts) is represented."

Concerns about Waipio Valley are not new, Kahakalau said. For over two decades, locals have brought up how the valley is too overrun by visitors who trespass onto private property. The recent Hawaii Island Destination Management Action Plan by the Hawaiian Tourism Authority identifies the valley as a hotspot with the "utmost concern."

For now, those gatherings have no plans of leaving until Roth speaks with them.

According to Johnasen, the County is still working on repairing the road and addressing its safety concerns and a public meeting on the issue is slated for early October.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Waipio Valley protests on Hawaii Island after partial road reopening