Honolulu officials are planning to demolish a popular hiking trail and Instagram-worthy location that attracts thousands of visitors each year, claiming that it is too dangerous and that the influx of visitors is detrimental to the local community.
Last Wednesday, the Honolulu City Council voted unanimously to remove the Haiku Stairs, also known as the ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ and set aside $1 million to do so. The next step is for Mayor Rick Blangardi to approve the city budget and complete the demolition of the site. The council says in a resolution on its agenda that it is ‘urging the City Administration to remove the Haiku Stairs and its accessory structures to stop trespassing, reduce disturbances to local neighborhoods, increase public safety, eliminate potential liability to the City, and protect the environment.’
The US Navy built the stairs in 1940 to provide access to a secret military radio base used during WWII.
According to the Honolulu Civil Beat, the Coast Guard closed the stairs in 1987 due to a spike in vandalism and liability concerns, which occurred after the attraction was featured in an episode of ‘Magnum P.I.’ and drove visitation up to 200 visitors per day. Despite the fact that climbing is illegal and violators face $1,000 fines, the site attracts approximately 4,000 visitors per year.
The 2,480-foot ascent includes 3,922 narrow steps built into Oahu’s Koolau mountain range, giving hikers the sensation that their heads are literally in the clouds.
Despite safety concerns, there has only been one documented death on the stairs – singer and comedian Fritz Hasenpusch, who died in 2012 while climbing. According to a report conducted between 2017 and 2019 by the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, which owned the stairs until handing it over to city administration last year, the removal of the stairs has been a contentious topic for decades.
‘With the advent of social media, instructions to illegally access Haiku Stairs are readily available, and prolific sharing of panoramic snapshots encourages people all over the world to risk the climb,’ according to the report. ‘There is an ongoing need to stop trespassing and reduce disruptions in the adjacent residential neighborhoods,’ says the mayor. When the Board of Water Supply owned the stairs, it spent approximately $250,000 per year in ratepayer funds on security services to prevent trespassing.
Maintenance costs were also a burden for the agency, which spent $23,000 in 2016 to remove an illegally installed swing on the ridgeline near the top of the stairs.
According to the report, the Honolulu Police Department and Fire Department incur costs from trespassing enforcement and rescue operations.
The stairs were built by the US Navy in 1940 to provide access to a radio base. The US Coast Guard owned the stairs in the 1970s and allowed about 75 visitors per day before closing them in 1987.
The stairs were nearly reopened to the public in 2001, when then-Mayor Jeremy Harris invested $875,000 to repair damaged sections and renovate sections for safe public access.
But the plan never materialized.
The attraction has a devoted following that has been fighting to clean and preserve the site since its closure in 1987.
Vernon Ansdell, the organization’s president, told the station, “Losing the stairs would be a catastrophe.” This is a valuable Windward treasure. And they must not be extinguished. This would be a huge loss for the island of Oahu, the state of Oahu, and especially for residents on the Windward side.’
Andsell recently published an op-ed in the Honolulu Civil Beat advocating for ‘managed access’ to the stairs, similar to former Mayor Harris’ plan. He wrote that the council’s decision “defies logic” and outlines a detailed plan for reopening the stairs as a tourist attraction.
It reads, ‘the Haiku Stairs can be reopened and operated at zero cost to Hawaii taxpayers and would leave the city and state governments $2.14 million better off than the proposal to remove them. Visitors would be charged to climb the stairs, and this would cover the costs of security, insurance, maintenance, staffing and educational programs.’