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Trail Time

With only one person overseeing more than 40 of O‘ahu’s hiking trails, the state gets extra help from an unexpected source.


On a typical weekend, more than 400 people hike to Manoa Falls. The 0.8-mile route through lush rain forest, culminating in a 100-foot waterfall, draws residents and tourists of all fitness levels. Over the past two years, the popular hiking trail has also attracted another kind of visitor—convicted felons wielding chainsaws and machetes.

The ease of the Manoa Falls trail is due in part to inmates such as Christopher Martinez (at left) and Orlando De Mello and O‘ahu trail and access specialist Aaron Lowe (right). photo: Sergio Goes

Don’t worry. These inmates have good reason to be there. They’re working for Na Ala Hele, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Trail and Access Program. The state established the program in 1988, but with only 10 full-time staffers overseeing more than 265 miles of dirt trails statewide, Na Ala Hele is chronically short staffed.

Trail and access specialist Aaron Lowe manages more than 84 miles of trail on O‘ahu, from Mokule‘ia to Maunawili. For years, he relied heavily on weekend volunteers to assist with trail projects that could be completed in a day or two. But when the number of visitors to Manoa Falls started to climb in recent years (due largely, he says, to the closure of Sacred Falls in 1999), Lowe realized he needed more help maintaining popular trails and turned to an unlikely labor source, the O‘ahu Community Correctional Center.

“It’s very important we maintain these trails to a safe level and keep them in good shape, cleared of trees and branches and well-marked to prevent any type of risk or injury,” Lowe says. “If you can maintain a trail to that high a level, it allows people to enjoy what’s around them, rather than having to pay attention to every footstep.”

Three to four times a week, Lowe and four inmates work eight-hour shifts, laying gravel at Manoa Falls, building a two-mile fence for the soon-to-be reopened Poamoho Trail or sharpening tools at the forestry division’s Makiki base yard. The Department of Public Safety pays inmates 50 cents an hour, but it’s up to the inmates to select the forestry workline over others.

“Rumor has it that we’re one of the tougher worklines for inmates,” Lowe says. OCCC doesn’t allow just any inmate to handle power tools, he notes. The facility picks nonviolent offenders who are on community status, or allowed to work in the community with proper supervision. In addition to making trails safer for their users on O‘ahu, the program often proves therapeutic for inmates.

“I love it, actually, just being out in the wildness—it’s calm and peaceful,” says inmate Orlando De Mello, who has participated in the program for more than a month. “It can be hard work, but it’s better than other jobs where we just weed-whack on the side of the freeway. There’s a bond between yourself and the land, and there’s pride in being part of taking care of it.”

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Honolulu Magazine February 2019
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