By VALERIE MONSON, Staff Writer
WAILUKU - The Natural Area Reserve System (NARS) Commission will be asked Monday to approve a "conceptual plan" that will allow limited kayak operations in the Ahihi-Kinau Natural Area Reserve and at adjoining Keoneoio where the unencumbered lands will be assigned to the Division of State Parks.
The recommendations by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources will no doubt throw more fuel on an already heated controversy involving commercial operators and members of the public who think the pristine reserve and nearby Keoneoio should be off-limits to any moneymaking endeavor.
"This is a sin, it's a real sin," said Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr., a member of an advisory group newly appointed by DLNR to help regulate the area. "This will just commercialize the whole area. In the meetings we've held, this is not what the people wanted."
But a kayak tour operator said his hui of four companies believes it can accept the limitations proposed by the state agency.
"We support the area. We support environmentally friendly operations, and we certainly support anything that does that," said Richard Lomas, president of Maui Ecotours.
The commission will meet at 9 a.m. in the DLNR boardroom of the Kalanimoku Building on Punchbowl Street in Honolulu.
Michael Buck, administrator for DLNR's forestry division, said the department will request that commissioners give a go-ahead to plan for issuing permits to a "single concessionaire," which could be one kayak company or a hui that shares the business. The number of vessels recommended to be allowed in the NAR, compiled from studies of the area done last year, are: no more than two groups of 10 kayaks each day at the coves known as "Fishbowl" and "Aquarium."
"We've talked about this for a long time; now it's time to find out where we are," said Buck. "If the commission says 'no commercial use whatsoever,' then the department will have to deal with that . . . But the department is recommending limited kayak concessions."
If the commission rejects the proposal, Buck's staff would need to redraft its plans in accordance with a previous action plan for the region.
Brian Yesland, operator of Kelii's Tours, said the Maui Kayak Association, the hui of operators who banded together last year to police themselves in the wake of bad publicity, thinks members can live with the proposal.
Lomas said the four association members reviewed the DLNR recommendation and "we think it's a good idea." In addition to Kelii's Tours and Maui Ecotours, the association includes South Pacific Kayaks and Private Kayak Tours.
All four companies are now conducting tours around Ahihi-Kinau and La Perouse Bay, he said, but they had established voluntary limits on their own.
"The guidelines that are in the proposal are the ones we are already using as an association," he said. "We've been doing it for a year now. We've been happy to work with the DLNR."
Dan Davidson, DLNR deputy director, said the limitation on kayaks and the days when they can operate in the reserve are among the details that can be tinkered with by commissioners if they approve the overall direction of the recommendations. The final decision will be made by the Board of Land and Natural Resources.
"This is just the first step," said Davidson.
The department also wants to assign the unencumbered lands of Keoneoio to the State Parks Division for management purposes. Unencumbered lands are owned by the state, but don't fall under the jurisdiction of a particular agency, making enforcement difficult. Keoneoio, a place rich in archaeological and historical sites, has suffered immensely in recent years as the popularity of launching kayaks from its shores into the natural area reserve has soared. Buck couldn't say how much of the coastal area called Keoneoio (La Perouse Bay) would be turned over to parks, but it would include the shoreline where launchings take place.
By issuing permits to a single entity, said Buck, the chaos that has led to abuse of the resources will be brought under control. Residents of the area and state workers have said the number of kayak companies and tourist vehicles at the sites has never been higher. Since the state lacks funds to provide sufficient enforcement, the natural resources have been defaced and destroyed.
"This will allow enforcement to be much easier," said Buck. "We believe the (kayak) operators will keep a watch out (for illegal operators)."
Davidson said the entity with the "highest qualified bid" will be awarded the contract. Kayak companies will be judged not only on how much they offer to pay for the contract, but their experience, safety record, insurance coverage and, according to Buck, "their ability to lead people in a responsible way."
Revenues from the concession will be placed into a fund to help enforcement and improve Keoneoio. Eventually, some of that money might be funneled off to support Ahihi-Kinau, said Davidson.
Maxwell said officials are forgetting why Ahihi-Kinau was set aside in the first place.
"The mere fact that it's called a reserve - what does reserve mean?" said Maxwell. "There are so many other places for recreation on Maui."
DLNR's highest priority for the natural area reserve system, one echoed by Chairman Peter Young in an interview with The Maui News last year, is to protect the resources. Only if commercial activities don't damage the resources can they be allowed, say the policies of the NARS Commission.
Buck said he doesn't believe the legalized commercial use will result in negative impacts.
"Having humans in a NARS is not a bad thing," he said. "It can build up support for parts of the NARS where people can't go. If we allow some commercial use, this will be one of the premiere kayaking and snorkeling places in the entire United States and people should pay for that."
Davidson said issuing permits at Ahihi-Kinau does not mean other NARS will necessarily be opened for commercialization. Both Davidson and Buck remarked that Ahihi-Kinau, the first reserve included in the state's system and the only one with a marine component, is unique. Most reserves are forestlands with no roads for public access.
Because permits have never been required to conduct kayak operations or other commercial endeavors in the NARS, the situation at such an easily accessed and incredibly gorgeous area such as Ahihi-Kinau can be controlled by permits, said Buck.
"The Pandora's box has been opened there for quite a while," said Buck.
The DLNR is also in the process of adopting regulations to issue permits for commercial operations on unencumbered lands. Draft rules were roundly criticized last month on Maui.
Mary Evanson, the community advocate who had proposed Keoneoio be made a national park and who opposes any commercial activity at either area, said if commercial use permits are issued, DLNR will have to complete an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement to mitigate impacts. Buck disagreed that such documents would be needed, but, if required, he said the agency would comply.
Davidson said other possible changes in the area include installing an entry booth to collect fees and gates to limit access at night. He said DLNR will work with Maui County to determine what should finally happen.
Issuing permits to kayak companies is only the latest attempt to control public abuse of the reserve and Keoneoio. The Hawaii Tourism Authority recently approved a three-year grant of $460,000 to provide rangers and educational programs in the area. The state has put into place four portable toilets.
"I know we're a lot better off than we were a year and a half ago," said Buck.
To Evanson and Maxwell, however, permitting commercial use is another nail in the coffin of some of Maui's most precious resources.
"Once this area gets permitted, you can forget about it, it's gone," said Evanson. "Poor Maui."
Valerie Monson can be reached at email@example.com.