Group emerges to care for historic Kealakekua sites

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KEALAKEKUA — It’s about taking kuleana for a precious resource.

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KEALAKEKUA — It’s about taking kuleana for a precious resource.

A new nonprofit stewardship group formed to malama Kealakekua Bay and a treasury of historical and cultural sites that largely have been neglected — not forgotten, but buried in brush and weeds. Hoala Kealakekua — comprised mainly of residents of the bay and their ohana — also is pressing the state to fast-track the installation of restrooms at the bottom of Kaawaloa Trail, and for the county to shut off access to that trail while the improvements are made.

The group had its first workday last month, with some 35 people clearing 15 truckloads of brush. The bay is the site of extensive ancient villages and religious complexes as well as the place of first contact and final rest for Capt. James Cook.

Gordon Leslie, chairman of the group and part of an extensive ohana tied to the bay, said the group is helping create community cohesion.

“In the last 40 years, I think this is the most positive direction we’ve taken,” he said.

The immediate goal of Hoala Kealakekua is cleanup and clearing of vegetation from historical sites — some of them buried and known only to those with cultural ties and knowledge of where to look for them. The group’s leaders say the work will help archaeologists access the sites and make determinations about how they should be dealt with in future restoration and preservation plans being hammered out for the entire area.

But the group’s ultimate intent goes much deeper, to serve as an advisory body to the planning for the bay and educating the public about an area that is arguably one of the most significant in the state in historical terms.

Alayna DeBina joined the leadership of the group because, as she put it, “my children are sixth-generation Hawaiians from this village, and I want to protect their heritage and their cultural birthplace for generations to come.”

The new group serves as kiai, or protectors of the bay, but also fills a gap in the labor needed to clean and maintain the area and advocate on behalf of residents to assure they benefit from the bay’s tourism, DeBina said.

“It is our job to not only restore and malama this sacred place, but to also make sure that it doesn’t just become a place of commercial activity,” DeBina said. “The vision of our group is to see this area and park as an education place, where tours are conducted by descendants of the area, and visitors learn the history and can stand in awe, respect and reverence for being able to walk where kings and queens once walked.”

Planners working on a master design for the bay are tasked with determining a balance of public access and historic preservation. Plans under several different scenarios would bring in more parking, canoe shuttles, interpretive features, more trail systems and other features. The planning process has been starting and stopping for decades, and the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and consultant Belt Collins took public input on a draft plan for the bay in January.

First on the state’s list should be restrooms on the Kaawaloa Trail, a steep 4-mile round-trip trek from the junction of Napoopoo Road and Highway 11 to the Captain Cook Monument, DeBina said.

The trail is a favorite among visitors, but hikers have nowhere to relieve themselves along the way except the bushes, and must park along a narrow, crowded road shoulder. The unsanitary conditions on sacred ground have irked bay residents and cultural practitioners.

Restrooms are part of the state’s long-range plan for the bay, but they could be years away.

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“Comfort stations are a must,” DeBina said. “How can you have a park without them? But also, there is a huge safety issue with the lack of parking. And with all the construction going on at that intersection, the issue is only exasperated.”

Email Bret Yager at byager@westhawaiitoday.com.

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