The Haʻikū Stairs have been closed to the public since 1987 but remain a popular hike on Oahu. (Kalen Emsley via Courthouse News)
Honolulu sued for plans to demolish iconic ‘Stairway to Heaven’
The Haʻikū Stairs have been slated for removal due to safety concerns, but activists say that there are alternatives to ripping out the popular steps.
by Candace Cheung, Court House News, August 8, 2023
HONOLULU (CN) — A local nonprofit sued the city and county of Honolulu Tuesday over the planned removal of the Haʻikū Stairs, an Oahu hike famous for its prime views overlooking the island and controversial due to its reputation of trespassers and injuries.
The Friends of Haʻikū Stairs nonprofit has been dedicated for nearly 40 years to preserving the roughly 3,000 steps that stretch across the crest of Windward Oahu’s Ko’olau mountain range. Often called “Stairway to Heaven” on travel blogs and social media, the Haʻikū Stairs or Haʻikū Ladder were originally built during World War II by the U.S. Navy as part of a radio station project. After military operations ceased at the station, the stairs were sporadically opened to the public as a hiking trail.
Although the stairs, now considered a historical and architectural feat, were closed in the 1980s and climbing them is illegal, it's remained as popular as ever to visit them, thanks to word of mouth and social media posts showcasing the view from the hike of the valley below.
In their 48-page complaint, the nonprofit, along with co-plaintiffs including several Friends of Haʻikū Stairs board members, environmental activists, and frequent hikers, say that the city’s hasn’t conducted a proper environmental assessment to implement their “Haiku Valley Nature Preserve Removal of Haiku and Moanalua Saddle Stairs” project to demolish the stairs in violation of the Hawai‘i Environmental Policy Act.
“The defendant is proposing an unlawful action, demolishing the Haʻikū Stairs. In doing so, they’re attempting to rely on an inappropriate and outdated and legally irrelevant environmental impact statement,” Timothy Vandeveer, attorney for the plaintiffs said in an interview. “It was prepared over three years ago for a different action. What plaintiffs are arguing is that the city is ignoring our environmental laws, which mandate that a new or, at the very least supplemental, environmental impact statement is to be prepared when there’s an essentially different action, which is the case here. We filed suit to get the city to follow the law.”
The city began planning to remove the stairs in 2021, following community complaints about Haʻikū Stairs visitors trespassing on private residential property, increased traffic and noise, along with concerns about the possible dangers of the hike.
Action toward the removal of the stairs began in earnest this year and at the end of June, the city selected a demolition company to oversee the process and awarded them a contract of over $2 million.
According to the plaintiffs, this decision is part of the city’s “bait and switch” on the public as to the fate of the stairs and has denied them due process.
“For the city to reverse its position and rewrite history by denying the significance of its choice violates the overarching policy aims of the environmental review process, which is to ensure the public has an adequate opportunity for informed participation in environmentally sensitive decisions,” they wrote in the complaint.
Friends of the Haiku Stairs and its fellow plaintiffs are asking for the city to conduct a supplemental environmental impact assessment before taking down the stairs. The initial assessment was conducted by the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, which owned the stairs before they were conveyed to the city in 2020.
The plaintiffs said in the complaint that circumstances for the Haʻikū Stairs have changed dramatically since 2020 and that by the time demolition actually begins in 2025, the 2019 impact statement will be years out of date.
A representative from Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s office said that, “The city is aware that the lawsuit has been filed. The Department of the Corporation Counsel is reviewing the lawsuit and cannot comment at this time.”
According to Vandeever and Friend of Haʻikū Stairs spokesperson Lynn Kenton, the push for removal of the stairs has ramped up during Blangiardi’s administration and the Haʻikū stairs have been unfairly represented and vilified to justify their removal.
"You have the Kaneohe neighborhood board saying, let's slow down, let's research this and let's look at a manage access plan. So it seems like our elected officials and our mayor are not listening to the majority of voices," Kenton said, adding that former Mayor Kirk Caldwell had called for managing access to the stairs, only for the new mayor to renege on his efforts.
The city has alluded to a high number of trespassers that have been cited at the stairs' main closed entrance, and the frequency of the Honolulu Place Department and emergency services being dispatched out to the area. Many of the injuries, rescues, and trespasses, Friends of the Haiku Stairs notes, are actually attributed to attempts to reach the stairs through the less safe “back route” of Moanalua Valley Trail. The group posits in the suit that removing the stairs may even exacerbate these issues.
The plaintiffs also note in their suit the inherent challenge of ripping out miles of decades old steel staircase embedded deep into the unstable terrain of the steep mountain range. The city currently intends to use helicopters to remove the sections of the stairs, which environmental activists are alarmed about.
The Ko’olau mountain range is a critical native habitat to a number of protected endangered species. The removal plan, however, doesn’t make any stipulations for mitigating or restoring the native flora that will be cleared from the stairs in the process.
Friends of Haʻikū Stairs has pushed for alternate ways to manage the stairs to preserve both its safety and its recreational and historical value.