Saturday, April 25, 2009

A Time of Transition at Kalaupapa

From the pali trail on north Molokai, one gets a panoramic view of the 10,000-acre Kalaupapa National Historical Park, site of a 142-year-old settlement for Hansen’s disease patients. (CHRIS HAMILTON photo)
National Park Service planning for future of Molokai historical park
KAHULUI, Maui News: April 24, 2009: - Just in the past year, the historic Kalaupapa leprosy settlement lost seven of 26 remaining patients with the long misunderstood and now curable disease. The youngest patient residing today at Kalaupapa National Historical Park is 68 years old, said park Superintendent Stephen Prokop. Add to the equation the onslaught of Catholic pilgrims anticipated after Father Damien's Vatican canonization as a saint Oct. 11, and Kalaupapa undoubtedly has reached a turning point, Prokop said. He made the comments Wednesday evening at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center during one of 12 public workshops organized by the Park Service to discuss the settlement and help chart its course for the next 30 years.

For the past year, the National Park Service has been preparing a general management plan for the 10,000-acre park, which is located on a Molokai peninsula with the world's tallest sea cliffs to its back. The park is accessible only by footpath, small plane or boat and has a cap of 100 visitors a day. The planning process, which is expected to take another three to four years to complete, also includes the creation of an environmental impact statement, said project manager Anna Tamura. Planning also could lead to more than tripling the park's acreage along the northeast shoreline. She said the workshops are just the first step in the process. The deadline to receive comments is July 13, but another set of meetings is planned for a year from now. Park Service workers and planning consultants are meeting with people who say they care deeply about Kalaupapa, many of whom have relatives who lived and died there during the settlement's 142-year history.

Foremost, the Park Service has been looking to the residents themselves for guidance, Prokop said. "The patients are our most important resource at Kalaupapa," he said. "Unfortunately, we are in a transition period and must prepare for a time when there are no longer any patients." For a century, Hawaii patients with leprosy, or Hansen's disease, were separated forcibly from their families and children and sent to Kalaupapa until 1969, even though a cure was discovered in the 1940s. Today, 12 people permanently live in the settlement, with others who live there part time. Their care is provided by the state Department of Health. One of them is Meli Watanuki, 74, who was relocated to Kalaupapa in 1964 and "paroled" in 1972, she said. People with the disease now need only outpatient care. "What I value most is the story of the people," said Meli's husband, Randall Watanuki, who is a kokua, or helper, for the Park Service. "There is no comparison to what they went through." He said patients not only lost their families and were ostracized from society, but in the process were deprived of their self-esteem. And it was because they had a gene possessed by only 4 percent of the population that they were even susceptible to the disease. "These are people who just had a bad break," he said.

Other testifiers, including members of the support group Ka 'Ohana O Kalaupapa, mentioned again and again how Kalaupapa feels like a special or spiritual place, filled with elements of hope, sadness and extraordinary natural beauty. They also spoke about patients who built fulfilling lives for themselves within their isolation. "It is truly one of the last Hawaiian places," said Bill Evanson, Natural Area Reserve Maui manager for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. "There is so much aloha there."

About 40 other people attended the two Kahului discussions. Their most common recommendations:
- Don't change a thing, unless it's to continue renovating the settlement's historic dorms, homes, meeting places, churches and graveyards.
- Create ocean and wildlife sanctuaries to further protect Kalaupapa's delicate natural environment, and also counter attacks by invasive plants and overpopulation by feral and introduced animals.
- Don't allow it to become commercialized with a "Disneyland atmosphere" or people hawking St. Damien T-shirts and trinkets. "That's totally against what the National Park Service stands for," Prokop said.
- Improve security to prevent visitors from stealing souvenirs, such as pieces of Damien's grave or church, and hire more rangers to hunt down poachers.
- Add more historical markers to tell the story of Kalaupapa as well as the Native Hawaiian people who lived there for 800 years prior to the settlement's establishment in 1866.
- Build an interpretive center and produce an instructional video - that provides historical background, and the do's and don'ts of visiting Kalaupapa - which is a common practice at other federal parks.
- Maintain some kind of quotas for the number of park visitors daily, but eliminate current age restriction for those 16 years old and younger.
- Park officials said the cap is mainly in place now to protect the privacy of the residents. But they added that even if more people were allowed to visit, Kalaupapa's inherently limited infrastructure, notably a shortage of toilets and fresh water, would naturally curb the number of visitors.

At least in the Maui workshops, there seemed to be no renewed talk of Molokai Native Hawaiians moving into the settlement's homes someday or building on Department of Hawaiian Home Lands property within the park. "That would be like living in Auschwitz. It's too sacred a place," said Lloyd Gilliom of Maui, a Native Hawaiian who has family members who live "top side" on Molokai as well as relatives buried at Kalaupapa. It is estimated that at least 8,000 patients and likely many more Native Hawaiians died at Kalaupapa. The park is filled with unmarked and yet-to-be discovered graves, Kalaupapa advocates said.

Kalaupapa has been a national park since 1980 and today has 34 employees and 100 structures. The Park Service was invited to the settlement by the patients, led by "the mayor of Kalaupapa" Richard Marks, who died last year. Currently, the park land is owned by a combination of the federal government and state departments of Land and Natural Resources, Transportation and Hawaiian Home Lands. A sliver is owned by private parties. The Hawaiian Home Lands lease with the park expires in 2041, while the federal government and DLNR are in discussions this year to renew a 20-year lease. The Park Service pays $200,000 a year to lease the land in the settlement, and Prokop said he was confident that that arrangement would continue indefinitely.

More pressing, Prokop said, is a proposal to re-evaluate a 1998 park-boundary study that would add 24,000 acres of the adjacent north-shore cliffs. Much of that property, which stretches to Halawa Valley, is owned now by The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii and the privately owned Pu'u O Hoku Ranch, he said. Some of Wednesday's discussion also revolved around whether the Park Service would allow Molokai Native Hawaiians to continue subsistence hunting and gathering in the park. There appeared to be support for the idea as long as it was monitored closely. Meli Watanuki said she's seen rare and expensive opihi and sea salt marked "From Kalaupapa" being sold at a Honolulu farmers market, which upset most of the evening meeting participants. Most of Kalaupapa is overseen by the Health Department, but as patients have passed away, the state has been spooling down its involvement while the Park Service has been ramping up, Prokop said. "We gotta preserve everything and no change nothing," Meli Watanuki said. That not only means repairing buildings, but also sharing and perpetuating the stories of leprosy patients; Father Damien; his contemporary, Mother Marianne Cope - who also could become a saint someday; as well as Native Hawaiians, she said. "They (the Park Service) know what they do," she said. "I speak from the heart to keep this a federal park. . . . They will never forget."
By Chris Hamilton (
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