KAWA BAY — Stefan casts a dubious eye at the sloppy swells pounding the stony Kawa Bay shoreline.
“I already caught the wave of the day this morning,” he says.
Stefan and his buddy Nathan — neither wanted to give their last names — were among a handful of surfers taking advantage of a breezy, sunny Friday to ride the waves, kick back in the shade and just enjoy an otherwise empty public beach.
“This is the perfect place,” Nathan said. “All the other beaches have a ton of people.”
The property, running between mile markers 57 and 58 off Highway 11 in Ka’u, is known as one of the best surf spots on the island. The county owns four parcels totaling 785 acres and manages another 222 acres for the state.
It’s an idyllic setting, a beach born of the volcano, with pahoehoe lava hardened into ebony rivulets running down to the black sand beach. The surf crawls up the rocky cliff, exploding into droplets soaring to the wind.
Farther down the beach, there’s a freshwater spring that bubbles to the surface and makes its way down a stream to connect with the sea. Birds chatter in the coconut palms, while stands of dragonfruit, papaya and lilikoi show off their fruit, poking through a bright green blanket of naupaka.
History of caretakers past
The tranquility belies a stormy history, marred by the threat of development, Native Hawaiian access lawsuits, government evictions of illegal homesteaders and squabbles between individuals and families claiming ancestral ownership.
It was five years ago last week that the county administration, accompanied by police, evicted Abel Lui and others who were living there with him. The county dismantled Lui’s brightly painted plywood house and removed tents and other structures built by the group over the years.
Lui claimed he’d lived there some 20 years and was the caretaker of the land of his ancestors, creating gardens, holding surfing contests and maintaining the trails. His efforts to claim title in court were all unsuccessful.
The property was purchased for $4.4 million, with county taxpayers chipping in $2.6 million of that, according to records kept by the county Public Access, Open Space and Natural Resources Preservation Commission.
The remainder of the funding came from the state Legacy Land Conservation Program under the Department of Land and Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Recovery Land Acquisition Program, The Trust for Public Land and community members. The Edmund C. Olson Trust sold the land for “several million” under the appraised value, the county said at the time.
Because of the public’s votes on 2012 charter amendments, 2 percent of property tax revenues is required to be taken off the top each year to purchase land for open space and preservation and another one quarter of one percent is taken to maintain those lands.
The land-buying fund had a balance of $12.8 million as of Sept. 6, according to PONC financials. Another $2 million is in the maintenance fund. Thousands of acres of land has been purchased.
According to the charter amendment, the maintenance money can be used for repair work, conservation and restoration of soil, forests, shorelines, native wildlife, streams and wetlands. Wildfire and fire prevention activities and repair of existing buildings to meet code requirements, replacing signs and installing and repairing fencing and cattle guards are also allowable projects.
Archaeological surveys, buffering of Native Hawaiian historical and cultural sites and biological studies for protection of Native Hawaiian plants and animals round out the list.
Who’s paying now?
So far, the county has used the money to pay Honolulu-based Townscape Inc. $221,000 for a Kawa resources management plan, according to Sept. 6 PONC financial reports.
The management plan was developed based on field visits and consultations with Ka’u community members who are knowledgeable about the place, and with agencies and organizations involved in the management of resources specific to Kawa, according to the 170-page report.
It recommends a four-point goal of maintaining a sense of place, minimizing human impacts, vegetation management and predator control.
Community members involved in the study included kupuna, lineal and cultural descendants, community organizations, fishermen, surfers, educators, scientists and professional experts. Community input was gathered in small talk story sessions and a public meeting.
Another $26,319 has been paid to Hilo-based Geometrician Associates for flora and fauna studies of Kawa and three other properties as of Sept. 6, according to PONC financial reports.
The state Historic Preservation Division in 2012 met with Native Hawaiian families and cataloged graves and heiau. Other artifacts have also been reported there, such as petroglyphs and a rock carved into a playing area for the historic game of konane, which is played much like checkers using black and white stones.
Other than the absence of Lui’s house, tents and a surfer judge’s stand, not a lot has changed since a West Hawaii Today reporter and photographer visited the property in 2010. There has been some weed eradication, and pathways from the road to the beach remain well-maintained.
Lui has continued his protest of what he sees as an unlawful eviction from his ancestors’ land, and the use of government money to pay for what he says he was doing for free all long.
“I’m gonna protest all of this. It ain’t over,” Lui said in an impassioned Oct. 9 speech before the PONC Commission. “It ain’t where somebody gonna get money and somebody gonna do this, yet all the years I stayed over there, I did ‘em because I love the people and I love the land.”
Most of the work so far has been along the shoreline.
A volunteer group — led by the nonprofit Paia, Maui-based Hawaii Wildlife Fund — has been working at removing invasive California grass, paspalum and other undesirables near the freshwater spring, stream and brackish estuary, home to the endangered orange-black Hawaiian damselfly.
The group has also cleaned up debris.
Since 2014, Hawaii Wildlife Fund has hosted more than a dozen shoreline cleanups working with more than 300 people, young and old. They’ve removed 1,873 pounds — almost a ton — of marine debris, including 295 pounds of nets, said Megan Lamson, vice president and Hawaii Island program director.
In addition, a 2014-16 project with Hawaii Fish Habitat Partnership, working through a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant for $26,660, held 24 community workdays to remove invasive plant species along the periphery of the estuary.
The nonprofit recently asked for a time extension on its $13,200 PONC grant, as it awaits state permits to restore the estuary.
“We will not do any estuary restoration work until the all proper permits are in hand,” Lamson said.
Other plans include continuing monthly water quality, crustacean, fish and marine debris accumulation surveys and quarterly community volunteer workday events.
In addition, Hawaii Wildlife Fund plans to scope the area for endangered hawksbill turtle nesting tracks and hatchling emergence in collaboration with the Hawaii Island Hawksbill Turtle Recovery Project.
Another group, Na Mamo O Kawa, Hawaiian for “descendants of Kawa,” received a $48,850 PONC grant approval in June. Contact information for the group provided only an email address, where a reporter’s inquiry Tuesday was not responded to by press time Saturday.
Na Mamo O Kawa plans to continue its ongoing work restoring the property and its significant features, including the freshwater spring, fishponds, heiau and ahu, according to its application. Members of the nonprofit will also assist with the implementation of a native revegetation plan and a cultural site monitoring plan, while maintaining a safe and secure access to the property, the document states.
Stefan said he’s seen many workers during his frequent visits. He hopes to join the volunteers in their work, he said.
“This is going to look a lot better,” he says, taking in the sweeping vista from the ocean to the mountains. “It’s going to be very cool.”