WAILUKU - Second Circuit Judge Joseph Cardoza approved Wednesday an agreement between Public Access Trails Hawaii and the state of Hawaii to join forces in ongoing litigation to reopen the Haleakala Trail to hikers.
Landowner Haleakala Ranch Co. opposed the move, which makes the state Department of Land and Natural Resources an ally of the plaintiffs instead of a defendant in the public lands access case.
PATH Executive Director David Brown said his group's agreement with the state was a "watershed moment for trails in Hawaii."
"We applaud the leadership shown by DLNR chief William Aila in defending the state's interest in endangered trails, like Haleakala Trail," Brown said.
Plaintiff attorney Tom Pierce added that "we are very pleased to have the state on our side as we continue prosecuting this case against the ranch."
Don Young, president and chief executive officer of Haleakala Ranch, declined comment on the court action Wednesday afternoon.
The judge's action was the latest development in PATH's nearly two-year legal battle to gain public access to the former horse path, also called the Haleakala Bridle Trail. The ranch controls access to the trail through its property.
The nonprofit public advocacy group maintains that the trail is a public way under the Highways Act of 1892. The disputed portion of the trail stretches from the top of Piiholo and Olinda roads, through Haleakala Ranch land and to the lower boundary of Haleakala National Park.
The DLNR had chosen not to assert the public's right to use the trail. State officials had maintained that litigating the trail's ownership was not in the public interest because of the cost involved. And, they predicted that if the state did take ownership, then "considerable state resources" would be needed to upgrade and maintain the trail's rough terrain for hikers.
The state's position changed regarding litigating the trail's ownership in a Dec. 28 filing by Deputy Attorney General William Wynhoff. His filing supported the proposed agreement between the state and PATH.
The state did not believe plaintiffs could litigate "title to property that plaintiffs do not own or have interest," Wynhoff said, in a filing to Judge Cardoza. "This court disagreed. The case is proceeding. Given that reality, the state necessarily supports plaintiffs' position that the state, not Haleakala Ranch Co., owns the property."
While the plaintiffs continue to take the lead role in litigating the case, they would benefit from state support, he said.
Wynhoff noted that trail management issues would be negotiated later.
The agreement between the state and PATH also calls for the dismissal, without prejudice, of the plaintiffs' claims against the state; and, under the agreement, the state would file a cross-claim against the ranch.
In that claim, the state asserts that it owns the trail in fee simple.
"The state and its predecessors in interest have always owned the trail," it says. The ranch "has no ownership interest or rights to the trail."
PATH's filing says that having the state join in seeking public ownership of the trail would "simplify the ownership issues currently before the court" and would be "a more efficient and cost-effective means of determining title to Haleakala Trail."
The filing notes that if title is vested with the state, then the state agrees to "enter into good faith negotiations with plaintiffs on public access and management issues."
But, if "good faith negotiations with the state defendants fail, plaintiffs remain able to seek relief on public access and management issues by filing or re-filing claims against the state defendants," the PATH filing says.
With its attorney, Michael Gibson, the ranch opposed the request on procedural grounds to have PATH and the state join forces in the case.
The move fails to provide a procedure for notice to and objection by the members of PATH's class-action case to the partial dismissal of claims in the complaint, the ranch's filing says.
If all the members in the class-action suit were not properly informed, then the ranch runs the risk of facing multiple claims if established rules requiring notification are not followed, it says.
The ranch's filing also says the move should not be allowed before an earlier amended complaint is vacated as a way to maintain a clear record in the case. And it says the court should dismiss "quiet title" claims in the case because those would be covered by the state's cross-claim.
In May, Haleakala Ranch signed a memorandum of agreement with the state and Na Ala Hele Trail & Access System to open the trail for two hiking events annually. The hike route was to be determined by the ranch and led by a ranch or Na Ala Hele official. The state also indemnifies the ranch.
PATH officials said at the time that the agreement did not settle the ownership of the trail or require the state to stop a private landowner from blocking access to public lands.
Pierce said Wednesday that people should be able to walk on public lands at any time.
PATH officials said the judge's approval of the agreement between the group and the state was needed because the case had been given a class-action status. The plaintiffs represent certified class members who consist of all pedestrians, who as members of the public, have been and continue to be denied access to Haleakala Trail.
According to the plaintiffs' complaint, the trail was first used by Native Hawaiians, but after the arrival of Capt. James Cook in the 1700s, it was adopted by westerners as the preferred and primary way to Haleakala's summit. The trail was used extensively through the 1800s and early 1900s until Haleakala Highway was opened in 1935. The trail probably was traveled by author and humorist Mark Twain when he visited the crater in 1866.
* Brian Perry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.