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Akaka Falls trails await repairs: Park paths damaged during tree removal

Updated: 
March 16, 2017 - 9:17pm

HONOMU — Much of the Akaka Falls State Park trail system remains closed to visitors until further notice.

The upper portion of the trail between the Akaka Falls and Kahuna Falls overlooks was damaged accidentally during the removal of trees in February.

The state contracted with Arborist Services to cut the trees. One tree being removed damaged a railing on the open side of the park and another tree caused major damage to the high trail.

“They are invasive trees, albizia,” park worker Chad Okumoto, who handles entry fees, said in answer to a visitor’s question Wednesday.

About one of every two groups asks Okumoto about the trees, he said. He tells them the trees were cut on purpose, a little bit about them and the reason for the trees’ removal: park visitor safety.

Tree cutting started Jan. 31. Trees that did the damage were felled Feb. 23, said state Parks District Superintendent Dean Takebayashi.

Removal of smaller trees took about two to three weeks, Okumoto said. But the park closed for one and a half days for the largest trees, which is when the mishap occurred.

Takebayashi said the towering trees might only have been 12-15 years old, although that’s only a guess.

“Albizias hold the world record for the fastest-growing trees in the world,” he said. They also are prone to dropping branches.

“Nobody wanted this to happen,” Takebayashi said. “Had they fallen while people were in the park, it could have been a lot worse. Had the trees fallen while the park was open, it would have put a lot of people in danger.”

Removal of the trees opened wider views on both sides of the park, but a single tree did the worst damage.

“It fell accidentally the wrong way,” Okumoto told park visitors.

Takebayashi said the state worked with Arborist Services previously and “had no problems.” It’s just one of those things that can happen with tree removal, he said.

About six to a dozen trees were removed, Okumoto said.

Damage on the upper trail includes cracked stairs, broken sidewalk and ruined railing sections. One damaged path area is inches from a precipitous cliff. Park visitors have been blocked from entry to that portion of the park, the trail with a spur to an overlook of the Kahuna Falls area.

Okumoto told visitors it will be “at least a few months” to repair the trail.

Takebayashi said seven trees were removed from the middle of the park about four years ago without a problem — clearing a Mauna Kea view not visible previously.

The state chose to trim those few from the forest “because we wanted to see if it would return. It returned pretty well.” Within about six months, Takebayashi said, “you could barely even tell that there were any trees there.”

He expects a similar regrowth this time.

Takebayashi said costs to remove damaged infrastructure and replace it, possibly moving the trail slightly, will be covered by the insurance company for the tree service “and not by the state.”

“It’s really difficult for me to give you an estimate,” he said. “A contractor will have to go out and try to determine how they’re going to tackle some of the difficulties.”

Those difficulties include a need for heavy equipment on a dangerously high cliff.

Deb Koval of Hawaiian Paradise Park wondered aloud about the park’s change in appearance.

“It’s usually like a botanical garden,” she said. “It’s beautiful. I love bringing people here. But now it’s just like a tornado went through.”

She’s one of an estimated 200,000 park visitors per year, many of whom visit often.

Koval misses walking now-closed trail portions.

“It’s a nice walk, and I like approaching the falls from that way,” she said.

Major repairs will be needed before the high trail can reopen. However, paths all the way to the Kahuna Falls overlook are undamaged. From there into the high forest and back down to the Akaka Falls viewing area is the unsafe part, Takebayashi said.

“It’d be nice if they could make it so we could get through,” Koval said.

“If there’s enough demand, sure, we can open that portion up. But that would require stationing someone up at the top,” Takebayashi said. Also, he said, visitors will need to be forewarned to think hard about whether they can walk all the way to the Kahuna Falls viewing area and back because they’ll have to turn around instead of going into the high forest.

A steady stream of visitors continues to enter the park and view Akaka Falls.

“We’ve probably gone down a little bit in terms of how many people are visiting,” Takebayashi said. But he said he is hopeful that within six months visitors won’t even be able to tell there are trees missing.

Email Jeff Hansel at jhansel@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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