KAILUA-KONA — The organizers of the annual Hawaii Island Festival of Birds have announced the cancellation of this year’s event, citing difficulty accessing forest reserves around Maunakea.
The fourth annual edition of the festival, which was set for Oct. 24-28, will not take place due to “ongoing uncertainty of access into key native forest habitat and other mitigating factors,” a press release stated.
Rob Pacheco, co-founder of the festival, said the closure of Maunakea Access Road and nearby areas because of the ongoing protests against the Thirty Meter Telescope limited access to Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge. Any area to the refuge that could be accessed on foot is currently closed to nonessential personnel by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We had a lot of things with the festival that we could do, however, we have the people from the mainland coming over and attending all four days of the festival, and primarily, their main draw is to see the birds,” Pacheco said. “And the pinnacle of that is going into the forest and seeing the native Hawaiian forest birds. Hakalau is the pinnacle experience, and that’s the experience most people sign up for.”
Access to the wildlife refuge could open up by the end of October, but Pacheco said the festival committee decided it was best to avoid the financial risks that would come with canceling the festival closer to its start date.
A statement on the festival’s website states: “There is a high probability that current road and forest closures on Maunakea will still be in place at the onset of the festival. There are too many risks and unknowns at this point for us to guarantee fulfilling our overall festival obligations while providing a successful and high quality festival experience we’ve promised and advertised.”
The festival was founded to celebrate the diversity of Hawaii’s birds — including nene, Hawaii amakihi, the Hawaiian hawk and pueo — and to attract both local and visiting birdwatchers to learn about the birds and observe them.
Pacheco said last year the festival drew a crowd of about 800 people, with 250 people coming from out of state.
Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau, said Thursday he doesn’t anticipate the lack of access to the area to affect future events on the island.
“That (festival) was more specific, to where it really relied on those areas that were state and government run” Birch said. “We don’t foresee any other types of festivals would be affected by what’s going on or by any closures.”
Construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on the summit of Maunakea was scheduled to begin July 15, but has been blocked by protesters, who believe construction will desecrate sacred land and cultural landmarks, among other concerns.
Birch also said because of the lack of access to the summit of Maunakea, the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau has seen an increase of visitor numbers to other sites, such as Waipio Valley, due to word of mouth on social media.
“We aren’t marketing those areas more at all, we’re just seeing the numbers increase as the visitation is being moved from other areas that have been inaccessible or have limited access,” Birch said.
In place of the Hawaii Island Festival of Birds, three alternative birding tours have been announced from Oct. 25-27.
“We are offering three different tours because there are some people that may have booked already and were planning on coming,” Hawaii Forest and Trail marketing manager Susan Bredo said. “And it’s for people who still want to be here and enjoy and love birding on the island.”
The schedule for the 2020 festival will be announced at a later date.
“We’re not going to be able to pull of our fourth annual this year, but we’re going to do our fourth annual next year, so we’re looking forward to that,” Pacheco said. “At the end of the weekend, the folks that are coming over and joining us, they’re going to have a great avian experience and we’re happy to be able to provide that for them.”
More information on the cancellation and the alternative schedule of the Hawaii Island Festival of Birds can be found at birdfesthawaii.org.