Today, there are just five patients left at Kalaupapa. All in their 80s and 90s, they have chosen to live out their lives on the remote Molokaʻi peninsula.
As the state will now honor – every January – the resiliency of those who were forced to make this community their home, what will the future of Kalaupapa look like once there are no longer patients remaining and the state Department of Health (DOH) pulls out of the settlement?
It’s complicated, but in August 2021 the National Park Service (NPS) released a management plan for the area that provides a path forward. Work on the document began way back in 2009, and it’s not hard to see why it took so long to complete – there are many entities at play in the roughly 8,000 acres that comprise Kalaupapa.
The Kalaupapa National Historic Park General Management Plan (GMP) provides broad guidance for the management of the park (nps.gov/kala). It is intended to navigate the NPS and its many partners in the protection of the Hansen’s disease community and its legacy. The plan provides direction for the preservation of Kalaupapa’s cherished resources and future visitation over the next 15 years and beyond.
Nancy Holman, an experienced administrator who carries a reputation for relationship building, was named superintendent of the park in September of 2021.
“Planning for Kalaupapa National Historical Park (NHP) was complex due to the nature of land ownership, complex resources, shared management, partnerships, and the many communities and individuals associated with Kalaupapa.
“Additionally, changes in National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) guidance and National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) Section 106 consultation extended the duration of the planning process,” Holman said.
“Developing the GMP included several stages of public involvement to understand public sentiments, address them, and incorporate them in the plan. While the GMP process took many years, the plan represents significant work by all involved. In the near term, the ongoing transfer of DOH responsibilities – unrelated to health care – to NPS will continue. In the long term, the NPS will assume management of visitor access, activities, and resources in consultation with partners.”
About a quarter of the land at Kalaupapa – some 1,400 acres – is stewarded by the Department of Hawaiian Homelands (DHHL). The National Park Service has about 22 acres located near the lighthouse, the Department of Transportation holds land near the airport and the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) has kuleana for the remaining property. The park service has a $250,000 a year lease with DHHL which runs through 2041, and another lease with DLNR which expires in 2029.
By law, DHHL may not sell its land at Kalaupapa. Some DHHL beneficiaries on the island said they feel their voice was not heard during the development of the GMP.
“It’s been a rocky road dealing with the NPS at Kalaupapa,” said community activist and Molokaʻi resident Walter Ritte. Ritte said he applied for DHHL lands years back at Kalaupapa and was told those lands were not available for homesteading. When the park was dedicated in 1980, Ritte said he was again told there were no applications for homesteading at Kalaupapa.
“When the GMP began, our group Hui Hoʻopakele ʻĀina participated with a 10-page letter of our concerns. It was a long, difficult process which ended with our 106 consultation rights and input ignored, and the environmental impact statement process was deleted and replaced with a programmatic agreement under the leadership and urging of President Trump. Our concerns and rights as homesteaders and Hawaiians were ignored,” Ritte said.
Ritte said the huiʻs only victory thus far has been stopping the expansion of the park to include the North Shore valleys of Pelekunu, Wailau and Hālawa.
“We are now urging DHHL to step in and revisit the lease agreement to include the rights and needs of Native Hawaiians. Kalaupapa represents an important element in a bright future for the island of Moloka’i. The NPS has not shown positive results for the people of Molokaʻi and has not resulted in the advancement of Hawaiian homesteaders as mandated in the DHHL Homestead Act,” Ritte said.
Holman, who was not involved in the GMP process at Kalaupapa, said she’d like to better understand DHHL beneficiary perspectives about what didn’t work in the planning process and what might work better in the future. She said no decisions have been made about what will happen when the DHHL lease expires. She said future plans will be developed with DHHL and other stakeholders.
“Moving forward the staff at Kalaupapa NHP are seeking additional ways to be more inclusive in how we request and receive input. I’m eager to hear and try alternative approaches to how we can affirm common goals and work toward them together,” she said.
The Kalaupapa National Historic Preserve was established in 1980 following a recommendation from the Kalaupapa National Historic Park Advisory Committee which examined alternative futures for the area and included representatives from NPS, agencies of the state of Hawaiʻi, DHHL, the County of Maui and, importantly, the patients at Kalaupapa.
“Patients are a significant reason why the park exists, and they have a say in how their story is shared with the larger public – they are the heart of Kalaupapa,” Holman said.
Holman said this is reflected in how activities take place within the settlement, how tours are managed and operated, how patient privacy is maintained, and why opportunities to learn about management actions and provide feedback are held.
The planning process for the GMP included patient residents and their ʻohana, descendants of residents of Kalaupapa prior to 1866, Moloka’i residents, and other members of the public who have actively engaged and expressed concern about potential changes that could detrimentally affect Kalaupapa as a wahi pana.
“Core to the future of Kalaupapa NHP is honoring the legacy of the Hansen’s disease community and the long history of Native Hawaiians who called Kalaupapa their home. There is a need to mālama i ka ʻāina in a manner that shows respect for the peninsula’s people and their stories as we continue to assume management and operational responsibilities and facilities as the DOH transitions out of management responsibilities at Kalaupapa,” Holman said.
To help address concerns of beneficiaries like Ritte, the DHHL Kalaupapa Beneficiary Working Group engagement initiative was formulated in 2020 in response to beneficiary concerns and requests from the Hawaiian Homes Commission for comments and feedback. The working group is intended as an ongoing outreach effort with goals including finding ways to facilitate the use of and access to DHHL lands in Kalaupapa by beneficiaries.
The group has been meeting monthly since September 2021 providing regular updates to the Hawaiian Homes Commission. Group participants include beneficiaries on the Molokaʻi Island Waiting List, beneficiaries who have family members buried in Kalaupapa, lineal descendants of Native Hawaiian ʻohana who were displaced from Kalaupapa between 1865-1895, beneficiaries who participated in the NPS GMP, and a beneficiary representative of Ka ʻOhana O Kalaupapa.
DHHL officials said they will gather input from beneficiaries regarding what happens when the lease expires, but any final decision on the general lease is the responsibility of the Hawaiian Homes Commission.
“We acknowledge there are outstanding concerns from Native Hawaiian beneficiaries regarding Kalaupapa that still need to be addressed,” said DHHL Chairman William Ailā. “As a community, we have an opportunity to shape the next chapter of Kalaupapa together, and DHHL will be sure that the interests of its beneficiaries have a seat at the table for these decisions.”
In May 2021, DHHL secured a written commitment from the NPS to, among other points, develop strategies to improve communication and consultation with beneficiaries as well as to begin conversations to address community concerns regarding visitors and access to the settlement.
“The GMP is a tool that sets the overarching vision for desired future conditions,” Holman said. “It was created with public engagement and sets the stage for more opportunities to work together in how that vision will be implemented. As state and federal agencies, we are bound by law and policy, as well as the availability of funding – in the space between these facts, there is so much room for possibility on how we collectively achieve that vision. The GMP is not the end, but a beginning.”