Two surfers arrived at Waipi‘o Valley Road early Monday morning to catch waves off the black sand beach along the north shore of the Big Island.
Under the partial reversal of emergency rules issued by Hawai’i County, the 1.5-mile road to the valley was supposed to open to Hawai‘i residents in 4-wheel drive vehicles at 9 a.m. Monday.
But the surfers encountered a group of about 100 valley residents, farmers and their supporters who want the restricted access for locals only to remain in place for the road —which is the steepest in the country for its length and also dangerous due to instability and the high risk of rockslides.
The protestors were stationed at Waipi’o Lookout, with a simple request to people planning to drive the road: “Please don’t go down there.”
The surfers obliged, and turned around.
“We’re telling them that our kūpuna are asking them,” said Darde Gaymo, a Waipi‘o Valley resident and one of the organizers of the group protesting Hawai‘i Island Mayor Mitch Roth’s amendment to his February 2022 emergency order.
The protestors setup at the lookout Sunday night, next to the road’s entrance, with cones and a Hawaiian flag. But there was not much need for the cones. During the first few hours of the protest, only a few vehicles showed up to drive down to the valley. The protestors delivered their message to the people inside of the vehicles in a peaceful manner. There was a park guard but no police there.
At mid-day the group held a press conference that began with the traditional blowing of a conch by a person wearing a red malo, which is a loincloth worn by Hawaiian men only on ceremonial occasions.
With the lookout and the jagged green hills of the valley in the backdrop, they expressed their desires: for the road to remain closed for only the 50 to 70 valley residents — and for the lawsuit by a group who wanted to the road to remain opened to be withdrawn while the County addresses fixing the roadway.
The new order allowed the road to open to all Big Island residents, county-permitted tour operators and those seeking to practice their Native Hawaiian traditional or customary rights, as long as they had four-wheel vehicles. It remained closed to visitors not with tours, uncovered vehicles, ATVs, horses and pedestrians.
The protestors said the mayor’s sudden reversal disrespected the residents who have worked for years with the County to try and find a solution to overcrowding in the valley and overuse of the narrow, crumbling, precarious roadway that leads people there.
“We’re done,” Gamayo said. “We’ve tried, we’ve tried and we have tried. We are here because we have not come to an agreement.”
Mayor Roth closed the road to all vehicle traffic on Feb. 25 except for valley residents and farmers who have agricultural business in the fertile, sacred valley known for taro farming. The closure was meant as a safety measure to address a geotechnical study released in January. The study provided evidence about what the County and valley residents knew for a long time — the road was in dangerously bad disrepair and needed immediate fixing.
When the emergency rules went into effect in February, another camp on the polarizing, passionate topic said it was unfairly cut off from access to public beaches and hiking trails at the valley floor.
In April, community group Malama I Ke Kaio Waipiʻo, which includes Native Hawaiians, sued the County, claiming the road closure was illegal because it blocked their access for spiritual and customary practices in the valley. Earlier this month, the group reached a tentative settlement with the County that included the partial reopening of the road.
But the County’s reversal caught some valley residents off guard – especially since no repair work had taken place on the road during the seven months it was shuttered.
The group who gathered at the lookout said they saw no other option than to set up the blockade and ask residents not to make the trek down the road.
T. Mahealani Maiku‘i, who helped organize the gathering, and dozens of others said they will hold vigil there for as long as it takes to get their message across.
“We understand he has to do the law thing,” Maikui said about the mayor acquiescing to the law suit mediation agreement. “But it’s time that [the kūpuna] are heard. You can listen, but we need somebody to do something, because we are all here to stand for them.”
Roth, who had representatives of his office meet with the residents at the lookout Monday morning, said in a statement later in the day that since the February closure, his administration has “been challenged on our decision in court and have gone through mediation regarding access rules for other constituencies, have listened to additional community concerns, and have continued to review expert information.”
Roth said the amended declaration and rules reflect all of those factors.
“However, this access only pertains to the roadway itself and not the land beyond where the County road ends,” he said. “All land beyond our roadway is privately owned. That said, 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.”
The protestors’ demonstration and vocal gathering at the lookout also was meant to deliver the wishes of the kūpuna of the sacred for the historical area known as the “Valley of the Kings.” Wishes they had been expressing to county leaders for decades.
About eight years ago, a task force was formed to help the county find solutions to the road use. Those “roundtable discussions” only got the protectors of the valley a reneged promise, although pedestrian foot traffic is still banned on the road under the revised rules.
Hiking into the gorgeous valley is popular with tourists. Up to 200 people a day made the trek during high-volume days, causing safety and overcrowding concerns.
Many young people were a part of Monday’s gathering to show the mayor’s office the younger generation is prepared to see that their elders’ wishes are carried out.
The protestors were optimistic the representation of young and old would lead to change.
“They see a lot of the younger people instead of just the kūpunas who have been repeating themselves over generations and generations and they see the younger people rising up and taking the initiative,” valley resident and organizer Mariah Toledo-Tavares said. “We need this change right now. I think somebody is going to hear us.”
Roth said on Friday during a ZOOM meeting to discuss the amended rules that he heard push back from residents. He said his office also has heard from many people on both sides of the issue.
One of the demonstrators’ call to action was to “flood the mayor’s inbox” with emails about their concerns.
On Monday, Mayor Roth said his administration supports the valley resident’s effort to educate prospective visitors about their sentiments and asked the community “to be mindful of their actions as they affect others.”
“Hawaiʻi 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.
Despite the latest developments, the County still intends to fix the road.
An in-person meeting, with a Q&A session, is scheduled from 5:30 to 7 p.m. on Oct. 5 at Honokaʻa People’s Theater. The County said by Oct. 5 it should be further along with its road work improvement plan. It is crafting a plan to begin implementing work phases. The road could close to all traffic during work days and inclement weather.
In the meantime, the valley kūpuna said they were grateful the younger generation were also taking up the fight.
“Thank you for make us to take control of this,” Naaman Toko, donned with lei, told the group. “I think we can get through this … This is the time.”