Illegal off-roading to Hawaii’s rare green sand beach has scarred the land

There are only four green sand beaches on Earth, and Hawaii has one of them. Located at Hawaii Island’s South Point in the district of Kau, Papakolea Beach has rare olivine sands, created by a volcanic cinder cone. But the beauty of the area masks the issues around it. 

An hour-and-a-half drive from Kona, and two hours from Hilo, South Point is rural and undeveloped. Visitors and residents have severely scarred the land by illegally creating their own roads. A significant amount of damage has been caused by the resulting web of dirt paths, with ruts as deep as 8 feet, to get to the beach and other surrounding areas of Ka Lae (Hawaiian for “The Point”), dubbed the southernmost point in the United States. 

“This sacred and treasured place for the people of Kau has been desecrated and exploited by off-road enthusiasts, thoughtless actions of visitors, and sports fishermen despite the presence of iwi kupuna [ancestral bones and burials] and sacred sites,” the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands said in a 2016 South Point resources management plan describing the issues. “The people of Kau are pleading to ‘let the land heal’ so that what is left of this fragile ecosystem can be shared with future generations.”

DHHL is the governing body responsible for managing South Point’s lands, which are held in a trust to be used for Native Hawaiian beneficiaries.
But with a large part of its budget going towards Hawaiian homes, the department does not have the funds to have someone down there 24/7 to enforce the rules.

“Any off-roading is illegal unless they are using the county dirt road down to Kaulana Boat Ramp,” Cedric Duarte, a spokesperson for DHHL, tells SFGATE. Meanwhile, illegal commercial vehicular enterprises have also popped up. 

“The land has been exploited by individuals providing illegal shuttle services who care only about economic gain even at the expense of the land and resources,” the DHHL management plan adds. 

It’s a common occurrence here. Locals solicit visitors who show up by foot or by car, and $20 gets a ride through miles of dirt paths to the beach in the back of a pickup truck. No one tells visitors when they arrive that it’s actually illegal to do this, and no one regulates the offers at Papakolea’s entrance. 

“People are free to do as they wish and our cultural sites have been desecrated. Roads are created where they are not supposed to be, and when big rains occur, water floods and follows these roads that lead to sites, thus contributing to erosion at a faster pace,” Nohea Kaawa, a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner and lifelong resident of the district, tells SFGATE. 

Though rental cars restrict offroading, visitors are still seen navigating the illegal roads to Papakolea Beach and around South Point.

Though rental cars restrict offroading, visitors are still seen navigating the illegal roads to Papakolea Beach and around South Point.


The impact goes beyond the land.

“Loose dirt flows into the ocean, covering the reef, and then the fish population starts to decline because the coral starts to die,” Kaawa pointed out. “We all know that coral needs sunlight to live,” she says. “The traffic in the area has also decimated ohai, a native shrub with orange and red blossoms that now only grows wild in a few places along the coast. … There are families that carry ‘ohai’ in their name, so you know the plant was important to this area. We as Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) are connected to our native environment; plants are ohana (family).”

Scientists believe that South Point is the place Polynesians, likely from the Marquesas Islands, first arrived to Hawaii in as early as 124 C.E.
They found a verdant new land ideal for fishing and rich with agriculture, and ultimately settled.

Vestiges of where the ancients moored their canoes, lived, worshiped and buried their dead can still be found. Faces, native artistry and messages asserting that the “Kingdom of Hawaii is still here, we never left” carved into tree stumps and lava rock over the centuries are monuments to these voyagers. 

For these reasons, Hawaii has designated approximately 710 acres of land as a National Historic Landmark.

The Kau District comprises an area of 929.7 square miles with a population of 9,773 people, according to the 2020 census report. Populous areas for residents and visitors are the nearby towns of Ocean View, Naalehu and Discovery Harbour. Most live off catchment water, and many live entirely off-grid.

The area is serene and secluded. At night, crickets — and invasive coqui frogs — serenade each other, almost in tune with the twinkling display of celestial diamonds dotting the black velvet sky. Instead of lights from homes lining the shoreline, just a few glimmers are seen.

A sign on the Big Island of Hawaii indicating the way to Papakolea Beach (aka Green Sands Beach) and to Ka Lae (Hawaiian for "The Point"), the southernmost point of the U.S.

A sign on the Big Island of Hawaii indicating the way to Papakolea Beach (aka Green Sands Beach) and to Ka Lae (Hawaiian for “The Point”), the southernmost point of the U.S.

carolleal/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Matt and Rikki Prowse are residents of Ocean View, where they run the Kau Ohana Farms nursery, along with managing a vacation rental on their 3-acre property. They moved to South Point from Northern California a few years ago, and love the lifestyle and “perfectly temperate year-round climate” the region offers.

After their move, the couple tuned into the prevalent “Wild West” vibe of the area. Residents own acres of land, with some boasting beautiful gardens peeking through the lava-laden landscape, while others have dilapidated cars and ramshackle structures. The Prowses explain there’s a lot of talk about protecting the land in their community, yet there’s a pervasive feeling that some residents are letting their properties go.

Prowse says that they’ve found most Kau residents are a mix of mainlanders, many from Alaska who feel comfortable with the remoteness, and generations-old Hawaiian families, with some Marshall Islands folks mixed in as well. Largely people who are used to living affordably and unbothered, Prowse says.

The Prowses want the region to remain rural and removed from the overtourism found in other Hawaii locales, but since the area has one of the highest poverty rates in Hawaii, they wonder if industries can’t be built around ecotourism that would both celebrate and protect the Kau land. 
But one thing is certain: Illegal rides to Papakolea aren’t taxable, and don’t really support the community beyond where the driver spends it. 

“Tourism here is for the wealthy,” Prowse says. “They can have a sweetheart of a day renting a helicopter and going to a private beach that locals can’t access because they have to cross private land, but rich tourists can. There are so many green tourism opportunities here, we just need to decide what we want to be, then build industries around that.”

For instance, if an authorized tour group were to put together hiking tours or horseback rides. There are no tour groups currently authorized by the DHHL to do so.

People gather at Ka Lae to see the southernmost point of the U.S., fish and dive.

People gather at Ka Lae to see the southernmost point of the U.S., fish and dive.

MIXA Co. Ltd./Getty Images/MIXA

Chris Paterson, owner of Kailani Tours, says they don’t do legal tours to South Point because the road there is difficult. “We also think it’s one of those ‘neighborhood’ stops that we’d prefer not to bother local residents. We feel the same about Waipio and a few other locations on the island,” Paterson explains.

“If the county ever wanted to regulate things and ask a transportation company to do shuttles, I would consider that,” Paterson says. “In addition, if the local community preferred shuttle service or one transportation company only to do well-operated tours down there, we would certainly provide that service. Finding harmony with the community while serving our visitors is the balance that we always look to strike. It’s not always easy, but it keeps us focused on our mission.”

However, the 2016 DHHL Resource Management Plan for South Point has yet to be allotted funding, Duarte explains. Many of the visitor-related issues could be resolved if the plan was implemented — it includes adding sanitary amenities, parking fees, providing training and assistance to people seeking to start legal enterprises, as well as hiring an area manager to monitor closely — but it requires funding and resources.

“It’s very difficult for legislators to give us resources for something like this when they know we need resources for homes,” Duarte says. “In the list of things that need to be done, this one needs to be elevated.”

He agrees that Kau does feel a bit like the Wild West due to the lack of enforcement there, explaining that county police are limited on resources themselves. With the area so remote, they focus their efforts on keeping people safe in the more populated areas.

“The true issue will not get solved by creating a management plan that will take DHHL 20 years to implement, the real issue is that humans need management,” says Kaawa. “Humans need to learn to exist in a space with proper protocols and respect for our cultural landscapes. Kau needs onsite enforcement to ensure that there will be consequences if people don’t act right. If there’s no enforcement, what good does creating rules serve?”

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