Six thousand, four hundred feet up the western slope of Haleakala is the state-owned Kula Forest Reserve. There fog blankets the conifers and native trees, mist kisses your skin and silence slows your mind while serenity embraces your spirit.
That is, until the growling of ATVs and dirt bike engines rip through the forest and whatever peace of mind you’ve achieved. Annoying? Yes. Illegal? Absolutely, though that doesn’t seem to stop people from tearing apart the landscape.
On Nov. 4, 2005, Randy DeCambra, an officer with the state’s Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement (DOCARE), went on a little expedition through the reserve. With him were fellow Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) officers like Maui Branch Chief Randy Awo, East Maui Supervisor Dexter Tom and enforcement officer Brooks Tamaye. Their job was to assess the deep scarring of the forest caused by the increasing illegal dirt bike runs through the area.
“This is really disturbing,” said Awo as he examined the trampled native shrubs and freshly cut tire tracks. Overwhelmed by the extent of the damage, the DOCARE officers were speechless as they looked at the tire ruts scarring the face of Kanahau summit.
Back in May, personnel from the state’s Division of Forestry and Division of State Parks installed barriers at the lower Skyline trail gate at Kanahau to prevent off-road vehicles from getting in. They’re clearly not working.
“I’ve seen enough,” said Awo, finally breaking the silence. “This must be stopped.”
A mountain man at heart, DeCambra spends part of his time in the Kula Forest Reserve as a civilian hunter and hiker. When staffing allows, he also patrols as a DOCARE enforcement officer.
“The ATV and dirt bike activity up here is out of control,” DeCambra told me. “This careless destruction is causing erosion, disturbing the native bird populations, bringing in invasive species and hampering the ability of native Koa, Sandalwood and Ohia trees to successfully reestablish throughout the reserve… Maui lacks an off-road trail system for these thrill seekers so they come up here cutting up the mountainside and carving out new tracks.”
It’s pretty clear that DOCARE enforcement officers are spread thin. They say it’s because of state budget cuts. They also say limited manpower makes it difficult to protect Maui’s natural resources from what they call selfish and irresponsible off-road motor-bikers who are enjoying a free-for-all at the expense of other uses.
In theory, hikers, mountain-bikers, nature enthusiasts and hunters enjoy the Kula Forest Reserve. Awo says his department has been receiving complaints from hunters and other recreational users alerting them to illegal dirt bike activity.
Hikers don’t like the bikes’ high-pitched motors, which disturbs the peace and quiet. With the opening of 2005-2006 game bird hunting season on Nov. 5, enforcement officers are now expecting complaints from hunters. Until Jan. 16 of next year, bird hunters are allowed to hunt weekends and holidays, which are prime times for dirt-bike warriors.
Right now, Awo is working with the Division of Forestry and Wildlife (DOFAW) in trying to find a way to curb the damage caused by the off-roaders. One action they’re considering is a temporary closure of the area.
“Although highly unpopular, a closure of the Kula Forest Reserve will bring those with vested interest in preserving the area to the table to start discussions,” said Awo. “Through constructive discussion, we can raise the awareness and apply pressure to get these illegal off-road riders to stop. We need to come up with a strategic plan to deter these illegal activities and yet, not curtail the enjoyment entitled to the legal area users.”
Until that happens—if that happens—they’re stuck trying to enforce the current laws, which mandate a maximum penalty of a $1,000 fine and up to 30 days in jail to anyone caught off-roading through the reserve. Even worse, enforcement officers can confiscate the vehicles used in these violations.