As the National Park Service (NPS) takes over ownership of Pōhue Bay, an area brimming with Hawaiian cultural sites, petroglyphs, lava tubes and endangered animals, visitors to Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park will soon be able to explore an additional 26 square miles of protected shoreline along the Big Island’s southern coast.
In July, the nonprofit conservation group Trust for Public Land (TPL) donated a 16,451-acre parcel that stretches from Māmalahoa Highway to the shoreline of Pōhue Bay to the park service, according to a statement. Developers had previously eyed the area for homes, resorts and golf courses, but community members, nonprofits and elected leaders opposed any development of Pōhue Bay and urged the park service to acquire it.
TPL bought the land for roughly $9.4 million, then transferred ownership and stewardship to the NPS. The group also donated $800,000 to the Friends of Volcanoes National Park to help support the park service’s management of the bay.
“Pōhue is an incredibly precious and culturally significant landscape that needs to be protected,” says Rhonda Loh, the park’s superintendent, in the statement.
Though it’s now officially within the park’s boundaries, Pōhue Bay is off limits to the public while the NPS determines how best to protect its cultural and natural resources, adds bathrooms and trash removal, and scales up emergency response to the area.
“The first step is listening to … the Native Hawaiian families who have ancestral and traditional subsistence connections to the land and the shoreline,” Jessica Ferracane, a spokeswoman for the park, tells SFGate’s Jeanne Cooper. “We want to understand their concerns about what needs protection there, and we want to use that knowledge they provide to inform management decisions.”
Even after the park service develops an operating plan, the coastline will remain a protected playground for various species of wildlife, including the endangered hawksbill turtle (honu‘ea) and the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. It’s also a haven for many migratory and native birds, including the frigatebird (ʻiwa), white-tailed tropicbird (koaʻe kea), golden plover (kōlea), wandering tattler (ʻūlili) and black-crowned night heron (ʻaukuʻu). Rare red shrimp (ʻōpaeʻula) live in the region’s anchialine pools, which have a unique blend of fresh and salt water.
Pōhue Bay is also home to many culturally significant Native Hawaiian artifacts and places, including the largest recorded abrader tool quarry in the state, a burial site, fishing shrines, the remains of coastal villages and mountain-to-sea (mauka-makai) trails. A portion of an ancient coastal trail system called the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail is located along the shoreline, too.
Because of the bay’s rich historic and cultural importance, some residents of the rural Kau district, where the bay is located, are concerned that opening up Pōhue Bay to national park visitors will lead to overtourism and other issues.
“When you have open access and everyone is free to do as they please, coupled with the lack of education, security or enforcement, places get overharvested and sacred sites get destroyed,” Nohealani Kaawa, a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner who lives in Kau, tells SFGate.
The donation—the park’s largest additional since 2003—brings Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park’s total acreage up to 554 square miles. Last year, roughly 1.2 million travelers visited the park, which is home to Mauna Loa, the largest active volcano in the world, as well as Mauna Kea, an active volcano that also doubles as the world’s tallest mountain (when measured from base to peak). Kīlauea, the youngest and most active volcano on the Big Island, is also located within the park’s bounds.