KAILUA-KONA — Less than two weeks was all it took to transform a tranquil space of refuge in West Hawaii to one characterized by disorder and disrespect.
A partial government shutdown took effect Dec. 21 as Democrats and Republicans spar over the inclusion of $5 billion in a legislative spending package to fund a wall on the country’s border with Mexico. Since that time, thousands of federal employees have been furloughed without pay.
But stalled services and income insecurity are only where the tumult begins.
At Honaunau Bay in South Kona, consequences of the shutdown have sprawled to include the desecration of sacred lands and structures, inflation of human and vehicle traffic to the point of dangerous conditions both by land and by sea, as well as disruption of the local fishing industry and potentially negative impacts to area corals.
“The land and the ocean get the same problem when we get too many people down there,” said Charles Leslie, 77, who has fished West Hawaii waters for nearly all his life.
Place of Refuge
Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park was an immediate victim of the government shutdown, the first domino in a cascade of subsequent victims to follow.
Employees were removed from the park and access to its ample parking facilities gated off. But all it takes is a few steps to navigate the blockades, allowing anyone on foot free rein in a sacred Hawaiian space — and not everyone has behaved appropriately.
People have been witnessed walking their dogs and picnicking on the Royal Grounds, where such behavior is forbidden. An observer who asked to remain anonymous witnessed earlier in the week four people enter Hale O Keawe, a former burial ground and active temple of worship, and start “climbing around.”
As to whether everyone violating the rules of the sanctum are aware what they’re doing qualifies as desecration is impossible to say. But with less ambiguous improprieties, namely littering and theft, pleading ignorance isn’t an adequate defense.
Trash was overflowing in bins situated near the entrance to the park and how frequently they’re emptied, or who would even empty them, remains unclear as the grounds crew responsible for upkeep of the park is on furlough and no one in management could be reached at their offices for comment.
However, plastic items and glass bottles have been reported in small numbers on the park’s sands a reasonable distance from any trash or recycling receptacles.
And there has been at least one confirmed theft. An unknown person or persons stole a red blindfold off of a statue in the Royal Grounds. The blindfold was draped over the eyes of a statue representing Ku, a Hawaiian god of war, as is tradition during Makahiki season, a period of rest and peace.
Beyond actions ranging from acts of disrespect to outright desecration, respectful tourists like the Lam family, visiting Thursday from California, roll in every day to find disappointment in the park’s closure.
“We’re kind of bummed the gift store is closed,” said Keith Lam, who instead briefly strolled the park with his wife Michelle and two young sons Christopher and Nicholas. “We usually get stamps from each national park and we can’t get them today.”
The park’s Visitors Center is shuttered and informational brochures are unavailable. Orientation talks and ranger presentations are also on ice until the government opens the gates and allows employees back to work.
“We usually talk to the park rangers and guides, and there’s usually junior ranger program where they learn a lot about the history of the place and do activities,” Lam said. “That would have been great. We did the recordings, which was good, but not like talking to a ranger.”
Most of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is also inaccessible, either due to the shutdown or because of remaining impacts from Kilauea’s most recent volcanic activity. It serves as the state’s premier tourist destination.
For as long as it’s been around, some folks come for the park and naturally happen upon Two Step Beach, which provides rock access to a brilliant section of coral reef at one of Hawaii Island’s top snorkeling spots.
Matt Voss and his wife, visiting from the Seattle area, weren’t even aware of Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park but simply noticed the sign while exploring the island Wednesday and decided to turn in. They liked what they saw so much, they came back again the following day.
But even to the eye of a man making his first visit to the island, the well over 100 oceangoers spread across the water and a small swath of rock at its edge seemed precarious.
“I don’t know if this is the best spot in the first place for a lot of people to hang out on,” Voss said. “It’s probably on the crowded side for what’s here. It’s not a place that lends itself to a lot of (people).”
Local residents and fishermen confirmed Voss’s intuition as accurate, lamenting the problems of traffic and human overflow resulting from the closure of the park.
“The people who are coming, bless their hearts, they’re ignorant and they don’t know how much damage they’re causing,” said Kiwina Desoto, who works a farm in the area.
Vehicles line the narrow streets leading into and out of the Two Step area, spilling out in a row along the side of the main thoroughfare that crawls up the side of the mountain.
Desoto said he’s observed fishermen struggling to navigate the traffic, particularly when trying to pull their boats out of the water between late morning and early afternoon hours. He also said he’s seen cars blocking the pathway to the Hale-O-Keoua Canoe Club, impeding paddlers trying to launch or store canoes there.
He also speculated that such a vast increase in human presence on the reef and on the rocks could potentially cause damage in several ways, such as physical damage to the reef and more sunscreen pollution impacting food sources for the honu that like to rest and eat there.
Charles Leslie, a 77-year-old Big Island native who’s been fishing for more than seven decades and launches his boat from the ramp at Honaunau Bay, said the traffic in the water isn’t any better.
But it is far more dangerous.
That’s because the number of people swimming and snorkeling through a narrow channel serving as the only pathway for boats in and out of the bay has skyrocketed and there’s no efficient form of communication.
“Since the park closed, it’s 100 times worse,” Leslie said. “Before, we’d see two or three people in the channel, it was easy to clear them. Now with so many, one’s looking at you, the other puts their head in the water. There’s no control there.”
Leslie added it now frequently takes fishermen between 30-90 minutes to make their way into the shallow waters of Honaunau Bay. They have to wait until it’s entirely clear and even then, because of the number of people and the surge created by the heavy surf, significant risk remains.
Essentially, once a boat hits the channel, it’s passed the point of no return.
“We don’t have much room because when you come in there you have to tilt your motor so high. If (swimmers) get in front of your boat, you can’t stop even if you throw it in reverse,” Leslie said.
“It’s really dangerous for people to be in the channel,” he added. “With the surge, we can not stop our boat. Once we enter the channel, we have to come all the way into the ramp.”
After Friday talks that Democratic leadership from the House and Senate described as “contentious,” President Donald Trump admitted to reporters that he threatened to stretch out the government shutdown for “months or even years” if funding for the border wall isn’t included in the spending package.
Considering the resolve on both sides of the issue now holding the government hostage, conditions at Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, the neighboring Two Step Beach and Honaunau Bay that connects the two may long continue to deteriorate before any hope of improvement can be spotted through the crowds of people and vehicles blocking view of the horizon.