By ILIMA LOOMIS
KAHULUI - The Skyline Trail has been closed to all commercial activity - but its future as a trail for the public is now in question as well.
A study of historical maps and records found that a portion of the trail and its access road cross Department of Hawaiian Home Lands property.
That voids the authority of state trails agency Na Ala Hele to grant access to commercial tour groups, and technically it means that anyone using the trail, even a private hiker or mountain biker, is trespassing on DHHL land.
"Commercial activity is dead," said Torrie Nohara of Na Ala Hele Maui office. "Now our concern is can we get public access through here. Because we could be shut down."
Last month, the Haleakala Bike Company requested permission to lead guided tours down rugged Skyline Trail. Company owner Ben Hall said the tours would not be inappropriate on Skyline, which is an unpaved road that was already open to hiking tours.
But the proposal drew criticism from hikers, cultural groups, environmentalists and even other mountain bikers, who said the trail was too dangerous for tours and that off-road riders could damage the cinder-strewn landscape.
About a quarter-mile of Skyline Trail crosses Hawaiian Homes property, Nohara said. A section of road that leads to the trailhead also passes through DHHL property, but discrepancies between historical maps make it unclear how much of an overlap exists.
Nohara said state Department of Land and Natural Resources officials will now approach DHHL to negotiate continued access for recreational users. But while Na Ala Hele has worked out access agreements in the past, there's no indication whether permission will be granted in this case.
Security concerns prompted the reexamination of historical records and the discovery of the encroachment on DHHL lands, she said.
The Federal Aviation Administration, Maui Police Department and other agencies have radio towers and facilities at the summit of Haleakala and have proposed building a gate to block vehicle traffic on the access road.
Nohara said some at Na Ala Hele had wondered whether the Skyline crossed DHHL lands, but the encroachment had never been investigated or confirmed.
"We kind of weren't looking too closely at it, because we kind of thought that might be the case," she said. "Now we're kind of sure."
DHHL officials could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.
MPD Communications Coordinator Walt Pacheco said the access road passes several critical communications facilities, and that police and agencies wanted to block cars, but not foot traffic.
"The current condition allows people to actually drive right up to our facilities, and that was the concern - that vehicular traffic be controlled in that area," he said.
Skyline Trail is a 6.8-mile unpaved road that winds down the southwest slopes of Haleakala from a desolate cinder landscape near the summit of the mountain to a pine forest at Polipoli Springs State Recreation Area.
While the trail has been open to commercial hiking trips, it has not been used by tour groups - at least not officially, Nohara said.
No hiking tours have signed up to use the trail, but she has heard rumors and received complaints about bike tours using Skyline illegally.
"It's all hearsay," she said. "I've heard from different people that it's happening, and I was up there a few weeks ago and saw something that looked very suspicious."
DLNR enforcement officers would be responsible for investigating unpermitted use, but "they're very understaffed," Nohara said.
Haleakala Bike Company owner Ben Hall had argued that allowing bike tours would be safer and more controlled than sending riders down the trail on their own, and that tours could be kept to a limited number set by DLNR. He had proposed to conduct one tour a day of 12 experienced riders down the trail, and said that since hiking tours were allowed, the area was already open to commercial activity.
Critics of the plan said Skyline shouldn't be commercialized, and that mountain bikes could cause erosion or damage cinder cones in the area. They also described the trail as advanced-level and dangerous for mountain bikers, and they questioned how riders could receive help if injured on Skyline.
At a Na Ala Hele advisory council meeting Wednesday, Hawaiian cultural specialist Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell testified that he was strongly opposed to commercial activity on Haleakala, because of the mountain's cultural importance to Hawaiians.
"If you're going to walk on the land, please remember, at one time it was sacred," he said.
He feared opening the land to commercial activity could unleash a flood of tour groups.
The revelation of encroachment on Hawaiian Homes land should be a "wake-up call" for Na Ala Hele, he added, saying that any agreement with DHHL to continue access to the trail should prohibit commercial activity.
Shane O'Neill, manager of South Maui Bicycles, and a member of the Maui Bicycle Alliance, presented the Na Ala Hele board with an 80-signature petition.
"We all agree we don't want these commercial bicycle tours," he said.
Only advanced riders with plenty of local experience should ride Skyline, which is not a trail for beginners, he said.
"I wear full body armor when I ride this trail," he said.
O'Neill was afraid the tours would lead commercial groups into Maui's few other bike trails in Polipoli, and that too many accidents on Skyline Trail could lead the state into shutting it down completely.
"They're going to present this tour as a great family ride," he said. "Really it's a very treacherous trail."
Ilima Loomis can be reached at email@example.com.