The Fight Over Waihee Valley Closed Swinging Bridges On Maui And No One Is Happy About It

If the island of Maui were its voluptuous, pareidolic profile, Waihe‘e Valley would be carved into her cerebellum, right where the Kahului bight begins to bend back out again. Stemming from the piko (navel) of Mauna Kahalawai (“West Maui Mountains” is a misnomer), the ahupua‘a (traditional land division) fans onto the northern shores of the Valley Isle’s western end’s windward side.

The river that runs through Waihe‘e is one of Na Wai ‘Eha—The Four Waters, with neighboring ‘Iao, Waiehu and Waikapu Streams—the liquid lifeblood that’s made the area as lush as it is storied.

Naturally, Waihe‘e is a place of deep cultural significance to kanaka maoli (aboriginal Hawaiians), particularly in an area commonly called Swinging Bridges, and the pooling waters of ‘Eleile, exalted in lore. The trivial epithet “Swinging Bridges” is derived from the rickety plank-and-cable suspension bridges—recently upgraded for on-location shots in the Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston flick, Just Go With It—which augment an accessible (well, formerly accessible) but still off-the-beaten path adventure for locals, visitors and Hollywood elite alike.

Along the way is a glimpse of bygone Hawai‘i Nei. Kuleana waters feed lo‘i kalo (wetland taro patches) tended by families carrying on the traditional farming practices of the host culture’s staple crop.

And here too we’re reminded of how the Hawaiian archipelago’s nonpareil endemism is not limited to earth and sky. These fresh waters once—and should, and still can—teem with endemic lifeforms which, as the Division of Aquatic Resources describes, consist of four species of native freshwater fish (plus a fifth indigenous species), collectively called ‘o‘opu, plus two species of shellfish, ‘opae, and three species of freshwater limpets, hihiwai, hapawai and pipiwai.

But where there’s water, there’s war. A hotbed of controversy, just last August, Waihe‘e was in the spotlight after a long-fought petition which resulted in an order by the State Commission on Water Resource Management that the Wailuku Water Company and Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company (HC&S), be required to restore instream flow standards (i.e. flow minimums) to six million gallons per day of water flowing from the Waihe‘e River mouth—an increase of about 60 percent.

Further, there’s the Maui Coastal Land Trust’s Waihe‘e Refuge, consisting of more than 250 acres of permanently protected land, including “24 acres of coastal, spring-fed wetland, 103 acres of dune ecosystem, over 7,000 feet of marine shoreline and more than eight acres of riparian habitat for the recovery of native birds and native vegetation,” according to the non-profit’s website. This hard fought-for site, “once slated for development as a destination golf resort, [is now] forever conserved for recreation, archaeological preservation and education, as well as a habitat for native plants and animals.”

Though most agree great progress has been made, water and land rights are still and will continue to be hot-button topics island-and statewide. Indeed, fresh rumors are flying about Waihe‘e water (exporting water to Taiwan is a bogus rumor; but there are proposals, one of which includes a bottled water plant and hydroponic farm, for two currently on-the-market parcels of land which total 420 acres and hold several wells). Rob Parsons, Mayor Arakawa’s Environmental Coordinator, says that “it takes a lot more effort to separate facts from hyperbole and to correct misinformation once it’s out in the community.” Paul Meyer, Deputy Director of the Department of Water Supply adds that “it is true that we were approached a few months ago by an investment banker regarding [the wells]. After our engineers reviewed their location, size and production, they determined it would not be economic for us to buy and operate them.”

More alarming—especially for the native community—was the recent closing of all access to Swinging Bridges and ancestral grounds at ‘Eleile et al. There’s now a 12-foot tall razor wire-wrapped fence preventing anyone from getting to the bridges, and trespassing is punishable by arrest.

Clearly, Waihe‘e’s still wrought with woeful growing pains—and resolve is neither easy nor near.

* * *

It was early Saturday morning, Sept. 3, in Waihe‘e. A group of about 75, mostly kanaka maoli, had gathered under a large tent set up in the Waihe‘e Ball Park, atop the lime lawn infused with dawn’s dampness. Low rain clouds bulbed like baroque black pearls, cloaking the welkin in a way that seemed to speak to the mood of the somber group. They’d gathered to protest the recently restricted access to the valley’s Swinging Bridges and waters of ‘Eleile—a place, kanaka attest, is not just their stomping grounds or paradisical Polynesian playground, but home to more than a dozen hei‘au (sacred shrines); a place of their ancestors both in spirit and physical remains.

Access has been closed by two interests: John G. Varel, owner of Waihe‘e Valley Plantation, and the Wailuku Water Company, helmed by Avery Chumbley. For both parties the impetus for closure is mounting liability concerns in our litigious society.

The first, preexisting gate—now secured with a thick metal chain and three locks (presumably, one for Varel, one for Wailuku Water Company and one for the few residences that dot the blocked roadway)—is located at the top of Waihe‘e Valley Road, just as the dirt drive veers right toward Swinging Bridges. A new sign—one of many—posted by Waihe‘e Valley Plantation, reads in crimson font, “TRESPASSERS BEWARE! …YOU WILL BE ARRESTED! Bail is $250 This Will Go On Your Record And You Will Have To Appear In Court!”

An 8.5” x 11” sheet of paper, taped to the gate, explains further: “WE ARE CLOSED Due to Wailuku Water Company blocking access to Swinging Bridges. If you have Wailuku Water Company’s written permission please call 244-2120 to gain access across Waihee Valley Plantation. NO TRESPASSING!”

Indeed, Wailuku Water Company has “blocked access”—impenetrably. Located more than a mile past this first, relatively unassuming gate, is a second—made of thick metal grate framed in razor wire and erected in late August. But given its location, it’s technically illegal to witness (though we did—more on that later). Residents’ testimony told of large, load-bearing helicopters flying in building materials in mid-to late August, sparking suspicions and fanning the flames of indignation.

But the issue—at least, for the group assembled at the ballpark—hit its pitch between these two places, on Aug. 19, at a snack shack and toll booth owned by Varel near the boundary between his and Wailuku Water Company’s properties (Swinging Bridges is actually on Wailuku Water Company’s—not Varel’s—land). When a heated argument arose between a booth attendee and a Waihe‘e Valley descendant who believed they shouldn’t be required to sign a waiver or pay a fee—the dominos began to fall. But like any Rube Goldberg machine, it takes time—and tons of interconnected pieces—to construct, and this mess has been in the making for years.

Prior to the closure, Varel had charged $6 for tourists and $3 for locals; plus required the signing of a waiver. A 2006 Honolulu Advertiser story reported that Varel spent $30,000 to “pave a dirt entrance road that also serves his farm and home, build a country store and picnic area, hook up electricity and staff the new setup.” The new accomodations had a pleasant byproduct: a place once notorious for car-break-ins was now monitored. Theft dropped drastically.

But this five-year-old story also touched upon another issue which was current until the area’s closure, saying “because hikers think that by paying the entry fee they are cleared for the entire hike.”


Leave Varel’s plantation, and you’re still trespassing onto Wailuku Water Company land; which Chumbley reports as having “sometimes more than 100 [visitors] per day,” and repetitious vandalism of company equipment—a system that feeds into the County water system. Further, Chumbley said the permits to enter his land—available through Wailuku Water Company offices—have been virtually ignored, while travelers’ calls flood his offices’ “small staff… plac[ing] ‘a huge strain’” on the company’s time and resources. To make matters worse, Chumbley complained that Varel was “commercially exploit[ing]” the hike. Meanwhile Varel said that he “gained nothing” and that his neighborhood’s safety was his chief concern.

Then, there are the valley residents, neighboring Mauians and tourists—kanaka or no—all of whom want—and feel entitled to—access.

So again, enter last month’s dispute between Varel’s booth attendant and a descendant of a Waihe’e Valley family (who was raised in the valley, but no longer lives there) about payment and waiver-signing.

A shouting match ensured. There was name calling. Police responded. And just a few weeks later no one’s allowed in—whether with waiver, fee or a kanaka claim to access ancestral lands.
So valley residents organized a protest, spearheaded by the Kaumaunu ‘ohana—namely husband and wife Kaniloa and Johanna, whose niece was the denied valley descendant involved in the Aug. 19 kerfuffle.

Assembled at the ballpark, the protest’s supporters consisted mostly of fellow valley families, as well as many native Westsiders. Trucks, cars and SUVs—even a skinless soft-top jeep brandishing a flapping Hawai‘i State flag—arrived in slow procession. Spilling from the vehicles, the attendees assumed quiet positions under the tent. Young men clasped hands in brotherly handshakes, culturally savvy makua (adults) engaged in honi, the Hawaiian greeting tradition of touching noses and exchanging “the breath of life.”

Everyone was dressed for a hike—some prudently prepared with raincoats, boots and even walking sticks. Despite the threat of arrest, the initial plan for the protest was to go to the Waihe‘e Valley Plantation gate as a sign of defiance, a display of a cultural claim they say is legally theirs.

But the march was canceled for fear of how arrests would hurt the parties—and their families. Instead, the congregation at the ballpark viewed the assembly itself as protest—a peaceful show of support that’s to be “celebrated”—and the day was spent sharing mana‘o (thoughts, ideas, intentions), one by one before the group.

Wilmont Kamaunu Kahaialii (Willie K’s brother), was the most eloquent of speakers. He encouraged fellow kanaka to research their lineage as a mechanism of defense against blockage of traditional access. He also handed out little white cards printed with Hawaii Revised Statutes § 7-1:

“Building materials, water, etc.; landlords’ titles subject to tenants’ use. Where the landlords have obtained, or may hereafter obtain, allodial titles to their lands, the people on each of their lands shall not be deprived of the right to take firewood, house-timber, aho cord, thatch, or ki leaf, from the land on which they live, for their own private use, but they shall not have a right to take such articles to sell for profit. The people shall also have a right to drinking water, and running water, and the right of way. The springs of water, running water, and roads shall be free to all, on all lands granted in fee simple; provided that this shall not be applicable to wells and watercourses, which individuals have made for their own use. [CC 1859, §1477]”

But the most emotional testimony came from Kaniloa, who wept unabashedly. He spoke of being threatened by Homeland Security.

“I’ve become a threat in my own country,” he said. “I went to their schools. I learned their language. I obey their laws. I pay their taxes. I try to be good to everyone… I cannot explain to you my ties to da mountain. I played on dis mountainside my whole life. Everything we had came from mountain. Now, this,” he said, holding the bridge of his nose between his fingers, but it did not stifle his outpouring.

“But now, I realize who I am and what I lost,” said Kaniloa—a big man with a soft voice—trembling again. “I realized I had had a culture. I always said I was Hawaiian, but it took 45 years for me to really understand.”

His posture straightened, but his face was still swollen and oozing with emotion. “I cry because I’m angry,” he said. “I cry because I can hear my people calling—and I cannot come.”

From the first of the proceedings, the clouds reached capacity and spilled their celestial tears onto the crowd. The group’s consensus was that the rain represented ke akua (the gods)—their acknowledgment, their shared grief and their blessings.

Families created a pu‘olo (bundle) by wrapping a kalo (taro) corm and stalk in la‘i (ti) leaves gathered from the valley. Incantations were made and the ‘ohana—both blood and hanai—prayed with their foreheads resting on the pu‘olo, placing a kapu (sacred taboo) on the “black cloud brought upon the valley”; and by invoking the powers of ke akua, aimed to revoke the profits of market interests so long as access is barred.

As the last of the prayers were made, a select group—the Kamaunu ‘ohana at the head—prepared to lead a private procession to the first gate where they planned to place the pu‘olo but not cross the threshold, risking arrest.

And with this, the clouds broke and the sun appeared for the first time all day.

* * *

When the gathering was nearly pau, after a potluck lunch provided by the Kamaunu ‘ohana and valley families (dry mein, orange chicken, beef stew…), I drove up to the first gate to take pictures of the pu‘olo that had been placed there. A few tourists in rental cars pulled up alongside me and were confusedly reading the signs. I gave a brief synopsis of what transpired.

They looked at me, then looked at the gate. I could see the same question crossing their minds as had been filling mine: How is this measly little gate gonna be different from any other hopped fence and ignored sign at other island hot spots?

One young couple listened and nodded, but parked anyway. I saw them confer with each other, grab their backpacks, lock their car and proceed past the gate.

“Wait!” I yelled, chasing after them. I could tell by their expressions that they thought I’d come to reprimand them.

I explained that I’m a journalist. “So, just to remind you: you could be arrested, I could be arrested—just for having gone this far.”

They nodded. “So?” I asked.

They said were staying in Kihei—and hated it. The reason they had come to Maui is for places like Swinging Bridges, and their adventurous spirits weren’t going to stop them from at least having a look-see. “Can I follow you?” I asked. “Pick your brain in the process.” They were, if I may say so, all too happy.

“It is better to be arrested with a reporter,” the husband smiled. Meanwhile I was thinking of cats’ curiosity and my editor’s sole instruction with this story: don’t get arrested. Somehow, the thought of getting arrested while following trespassing tourists kind of put me at ease.

I learned that they’re a well-educated, successful and decidedly sweet young pair from New York City. As we meandered along talking story, we exchanged abridged bios and trivially tripped on the tongue about lighthearted stuff like pet birds, the meanings behind our names and our favorite berries. And, of course, we discussed the access issue. Needless to say, the couple was fascinated.

“There’s supposed to be a second gate back here—replete with razor wire and shit like that,” I told them. They asked where it was, but I did not know. Honestly, it’s been years since I’d been up there—and now I was regretting it madly.

We toodled along rather comely irrigation canals and tubes, taking pictures along the way so they could exercise their shaka muscles and have something to show for their adventure. But the most brotherly of gestures came when I discovered all too late that I’d worn the tread bald on my slippahs from regularly traversing concrete-cast ‘Iao Stream near my home. So, the pair kindly helped me by linking elbows while on the slippery slopes.


I checked with my partners in crime to see if they’re still game. “We’ve come this far,” they shrugged.

Soon, we crested another unassuming bend, when suddenly a massive metal gate revealed itself. I ran toward it.

“Damn! There it is!”

It was menacing, to say the least, and burned with the acrid odor of fresh black paint. Twelve feet high and just a bit longer, the rigid metal grate extends across the road that’s cut into the cliffside, from upwards on our left and down into the precipice on our right. And for point-making measure (or perhaps to curtail invasive monkeys and acrobats) across its top and along its exposed right side coils thick, untarnished razor wire, and a comic number of keep-out signs.
It was strange to see the emerald crest of the Waihe‘e Ridge Trail peeking just above the battery of blades; and the depths of the valley behind it, through only a stinking, perforated window.

We idled for a moment, unsure what to do next, before we succumbed to the obvious: turn around and go home; and were quieter on our walk back, sobered by the sight.

I understand the property owners’ mounting financial concerns (whatever anyone thinks of them as people or organizations), but being indigenous myself, I also sympathize—at my very core—with the Waihe‘e residents’ and na kanaka plight. But this kind, bright NY couple was a flesh and blood reminder that everyone—our visitors especially—also deserve to see this storied place. I applaud the people who dare to venture past the creature comforts of Resort Land and into the wild of the Promised. I’m proud these sacred sites are ours—and ours to share.