On Sept. 3, The Maui News ran a historical perspective celebrating Haleakala Ranch Co.'s 125th anniversary. The article left the reader with the impression that the company's activities have always benefited the public.
However, there is much more to tell about this story, as explained through just a few historical facts I summarize here.
The article referred to the company as a ranching outfit. While it is true the company still owns and manages ranch land on Maui, the company has also invested tens of millions of dollars in commercial real estate on the Mainland. There's nothing wrong with that. But let's get the description of the company accurate: It's primarily a diversified commercial real estate investment company, not a local ranching company.
The article failed to mention the very relevant ongoing lawsuit regarding ownership of the historic Haleakala Trail - a public trail that existed centuries before the company was ever around, and that now runs through the company's property at the top of Olinda Road. Until 1935, when Crater Road was opened, Haleakala Trail was the primary if not exclusive route to Haleakala Crater, widely traveled by thousands of tourists and local residents alike. In 2011, after Public Access Trails Hawaii's other efforts to secure public access to Haleakala Trail failed, PATH and some concerned individuals initiated a lawsuit that was certified by the local state court as a class action brought on behalf of the people of Hawaii. Importantly, the State of Hawaii has joined in PATH's lawsuit against the company, giving yet greater credence to PATH's position that Haleakala Trail is and has always been owned by the public.
While the article offered interesting history regarding Sam and H.A. Baldwin, it failed to mention that the company was founded 125 years ago by, among others, Lorrin A. Thurston, best known as one of the key leaders in the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. Thurston was also well known as a savvy businessman, and his role in the founding of the company is no exception. In addition to acquiring excellent land for Maui's burgeoning cattle industry, he locked up most of Haleakala Crater, Maui's primary tourist attraction at the time, and secured all the land surrounding Haleakala Trail.
While the article informs the reader that the company was incorporated on Sept. 1, 1888, it fails to mention what occurred the month prior to this event. In August 1888, Thurston, as the powerful minister of the interior, and H.P. Baldwin, as an elected representative in the Kingdom of Hawaii legislature, were instrumental in securing a significant government appropriation for the improvement of Haleakala Trail. Legislators in support of this appropriation argued that improvement of Haleakala Trail would be for the public benefit.
The company clearly had motives other than just the public good when the national park was created in the early 1900s. For example, after several years of negotiating tough with the government, the company succeeded in trading very poor grazing lands inside the crater for more than 7,000 acres of superior land located in Waiohuli, Keokea and Waiakoa. Not a bad deal, but that's not all. It also insisted on a perpetual right to graze its cattle anywhere outside the crater rim on the land it just conveyed to the government.
In sum, it is difficult to square the quote in the article from the company's public relations representative that the company is an "enduring community institution," especially when the company in the last decade has decided to obstruct the public from accessing the Haleakala Trail in defiance of the state's position that it is a public trail. It must be remembered that the Haleakala Trail has a rich, vibrant and public history of its own, that long predates the company's own history. When Haleakala Trail is again open to the public, it will truly be of great benefit to the community.
* David Henderson Brown is one of the original founders of the Maui Chapter of the Hawaii Sierra Club, a longtime member of the Na Ala Hele Advisory Council for Maui, and the founder and current president of the nonprofit Public Access Trails Hawaii. He is also a named plaintiff in the lawsuit against Haleakala Ranch Co.