By Léo Azambuja

Left to right, Halli Holmgren, Todd Yamashita and Léo Azambuja during sunset in Kalalau in June.

Kalalau, the crown jewel of Napali Coast and one of the most beautiful places on Earth, is right here in our backyard. But because of a permitting system favoring the visitor industry, local residents are being sidelined from legally visiting this pristine beach and valley. It’s about time our government officials make Kalalau permits more accessible to us who live and thrive on Kaua‘i.

I’ve been to Kalalau a handful of times in the last year. I just happened to be there last June, during the tail end of a three-day enforcement operation by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, involving several staff and officers.

We had just set up our tents at Kalalau Beach when we heard a helicopter flying low, zooming past our campsite. Soon after, it left carrying a large sling load — including two kayaks. The chopper returned a few times to pick up more sling loads.

A DLNR press release the following week said their officers and staff removed 15 large illegal camps, plus additional smaller ones and gear stashes in Kalalau. The chopper took two-and-a-half tons of rubbish in 15 sling loads.

In the last couple years, the DLNR has stepped up enforcement at Kalalau, issuing several citations (which they call “arrests”) and removing a lot of rubbish and gear left behind by fleeing illegal campers. According to DLNR, they “arrested” more than 200 people in the last two years, including 28 in May and at least six more in June.

From what I understand, there were about 20 to 40 people living in Kalalau Valley, away from the marked campsites. However, illegal camping in Kalalau is hardly exclusive to the valley. Every time I was in Kalalau — and always with a permit — there were illegal campers in the marked campsites by the beach. Many times, those campers without permits occupied prime spots near the beach waterfall.

Honestly, none of this matters when you arrive in Kalalau. Both the 11-mile hike and the kayak trip are stunningly beautiful yet potentially treacherous, requiring a good level of fitness and courage. Once you get to Kalalau, you just don’t worry about anything else. I have never seen anyone complaining about unpermitted campers while there. Instead, people just connect with each other and have a great time. It’s truly a magical place.

Still, there are only 60 permits per day available for Kalalau, whether you are a local resident or a visitor. For anyone wishing to visit Kalalau during the summer, it requires buying permits at least six months in advance. During other times of the year, it takes at least three months of planning ahead.

The DLNR says it wants to place permanent staff in the area. This would include communication access to deter illegal camping, and help to eliminate overuse of the composting toilets, provide additional maintenance to campsite and trail, provide information to campers, and add support to injured hikers and kayakers.

I think this is a great idea. But in my opinion the DLNR is missing a large part of the problem here. Local residents are being denied access to Kalalau.

Someone told me that years ago, the DLNR had a certain number of permits reserved for local residents only. For tourists who schedule a trip to Kaua‘i well in advance, planning for Kalalau is a snap. For us local residents, it’s hard to figure out our work schedule months in advance. Many of us decide to go without a permit, and many have told me they would buy a permit if it were still available. But with a few days’ notice, it’s nearly impossible.

It may be unintentional, but the permitting system for Kalalau favors visitors over local residents. While residents may enjoy a discount — $15 per day for locals vs. $20 for visitors — it doesn’t mean much when there aren’t permits available. The result can be a fine worth hundreds of dollars, a court appearance and a misdemeanor conviction.

It’s really disheartening that we live on Kaua‘i, and yet we are not allowed to go to Kalalau unless we plan six months ahead. The majority of unpermitted campers I met on Kalalau were Kaua‘i residents, whether they were spending a few days at the beach or camping for long periods in closed areas in the valley.

I would love to see the DLNR implementing a system where 20 permits could only be purchased by local residents, in person at the DLNR office in Lihu‘e. You could still buy one of the 60 permits online, whether you are a local resident or a visitor. But an additional 20 permits for Kaua‘i residents would become available for purchase two weeks prior to any trip, assuring there will always be permits for locals for last-minute plans.

I believe this would help to curb illegal camping, while bringing extra revenue for the state parks system. Perhaps it would even help to fund a permanent DLNR staff in Kalalau. I think most of us local residents wouldn’t mind throwing a little extra support for our parks system.

We pay state and county taxes, endure one of the highest costs of living in the U.S., and have the highest number of visitors per capita in the state of Hawai‘i — more than one visitor to every four residents any given day. Yet, we live here because we love this place and its people. We just want to enjoy Kaua‘i to the fullest. We deserve it.