Trouble in Paradise: Inside the Fight for Hawaii’s Climbing Access

~Mike Bishop

Last summer, a young girl was critically injured by a falling rock while on a guided trip to Hawaii's finest crag near Mokuleia (MOE-COO-LAY-EE-AH for you mainlanders) on the fabled North Shore of Oahu. Coming on the heels of a $15 million settlement against the State for the wrongful deaths of two hikers, the State shut down climbing access at Mokuleia due to fears of another massive lawsuit. The closure was enacted overnight, with no community input. The climber's trail accessing the wall was closed to all users, and a sign at the trailhead announced a $2,000 fine for trespassing. This was more than a little alarming to the island of Oahu's 500+ climbers.

Almost immediately, a group of respected/dirtbag climbers (including Mike “Bugman” Richardson, Deborah Halbert, and me - Mike Bishop) began to pursue every avenue we could think of to negotiate the reopening of our beloved crag. Initially, this consisted of calling, emailing, and setting up camp at the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) offices to attempt negotiations with them. Sadly, these attempts were rebuffed due to their “ongoing investigation” of the incident.

HI_1 Lobbying Hawaii style

Changing gears, we began to gather support via petitions, supplying over 1,700 signatures to DLNR leadership, urging them to rescind the closures across Oahu. We also began a dialogue with the Access Fund in search of advice. Meanwhile, another North Shore climber, Steve Poor, had endeavored to get our case heard before the North Shore Neighborhood Board—a town hall-type monthly meeting in Haleiwa (HA-LAY-EE-VAH).

The long and the short of it was that nothing helped, and 6 months went by with no progress. Two other climbing areas were eventually shut down, and climbing was banned within an entire State Park, leaving Oahu without a single developed crag that could legally be climbed. As a result of DLNR's accident investigation, it was determined that they couldn't reopen any of our climbing areas without first passing legislation to limit their liability. They urged us to start contacting our Senators and Representatives.

Rallying again, we began making last-minute appeals to legislators and succeeded in getting half a dozen bills introduced on each side of the legislature. Four months of endless lobbying ensued, causing stomach-churning anxiety and uncertainty as we challenged a lobbyist for Hawaii's consumer lawyers who'd been the puppet master of the Hawaii legislature for 20 years. We had reached the point where we were officially in over our heads, and none of us really had any idea what we had gotten ourselves into. While we’d managed to do pretty well for ourselves during the first round of hearings, we knew that once they made it to judiciary committees full of lawyers, we'd be hopelessly outgunned in the legalese department.

I made a panicked last-minute call to the Access Fund’s policy director/climbing lawyer, R.D. Pascoe, who boarded a plane to Hawaii for the showdown.

R.D. showed up with a badly sprained wrist and a thirst for justice and waves. We quickly gathered up our team of respected/dirtbag climbers to strategize with our newly arrived ally. After a couple days of making the rounds at the Capitol and the Attorney General's office with “our lawyer who flew all the way here from Colorado,” we were ready for our big Senate hearing. Our opposition (the Consumer Lawyers of Hawaii) had grown tired of our irksome progress and the support we had generated around the Capitol, and they came out swinging. They attacked the climbing community with a cornucopia of misinformation, attempting to panic the committee into stopping our bill. R.D. was called up next to testify, and he easily laid to rest the outlandish rumors propagated by our opposition. The bill was well-received and we picked up a handful of valuable Senate allies—a decisive victory for climbers, but the battle is still far from over.

HI_2 Access Fund’s RD Pascoe testifying before Senate committee.

After all that hard work, we rewarded R.D. with surfing! Despite his sprained wrist, he challenged the waves in front of the iconic Diamond Head crater, followed up by ono grindz (delicious food): Hawaiian-style poke, fish taco plates, and Japanese home cookin'. We were all sad to see R.D. go, but we were thrilled with the progress our campaign made while he was here. Having a lawyer and landowner liability expert testify on our behalf lent a great deal of credence to our cause.

Two of our bills are still going strong. The legislative process is painfully protracted, but the monumental effort we've all been putting in cannot be ignored. We will either pass a bill to eliminate landowner liability stemming from rock climbing, or we will succeed at negotiating some other arrangement to reopen our crags. Throughout the process, Access Fund has been prodigiously helpful and I daresay we couldn't have made it this far without their council. So, from all the climbers across the Hawaiian Islands, here's a giant 'Mahalo' (thank you) to all the folks at Access Fund and all of the climbers across the country whose membership makes their work possible!

HI_3 RD and the Climb Aloha crew.

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