WAIKAPU - A proposed cave law that would impose state regulations on caverns or lava tubes could end up pitting traditional Native Hawaiians against entrepreneurs.
The State Historic Preservation Division will hold a meeting on the drafted legislation from 7 to 10 p.m. Thursday at the Waikapu Community Center. Members of the Cave Task Force who helped put together the proposed law will be on hand to listen to public testimony.
Already, there's a growing chasm between Hawaiians who believe caves are spiritual places that often were burial grounds for their ancestors and landowners who allow their caves to be used as tourist attractions.
"The essence of the whole ordinance should protect the cultural and inherent rights of the Hawaiian people," said Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr., chairman of the Maui/Lanai Islands Burial Council and a member of the task force. "Preservation should be the first priority."
Maxwell thinks the group has a long way to go before he'd be happy with the new laws that impose fines "of not more than $10,000 for each separate offense" of desecration or pollution in the caves and disturbance of native organisms. The legislation also includes a liability section to protect owners of caves along with a confidentiality clause.
Maxwell also wonders if the new regulations can even be enforced with the current shortage of state workers.
Chuck Thorne, owner/operator of Kaeleku Caverns in Hana who also sits on the task force, said there are already laws to protect human remains found in caves, and he sees the new regulations as a much-needed way to prohibit other kinds of vandalism underground. When Thorne bought his Hana property, he had to remove 15,000 pounds of cow bones from the lava tube because the site had been used as a slaughterhouse for years.
"Now the caves will actually have a level of protection so you can't just dump things in them or use them as cesspools," he said. "You won't be able to break off a stalactite and sell them."
Thorne's cave has been the source of controversy ever since he began leading tours through it five years ago. Maxwell and other Hawaiians believe it was a burial cave and oppose the tours. Reports compiled by archaeologists over the years have been inconclusive as to whether Kaeleku actually was a burial cave, but some Hana residents who were interviewed by state officials claim they have seen human bones inside it.
Maxwell believes that caves or lava tubes that either contain or have formerly contained burials or even have legends associated with them about burials, should not be open to the public. The history of the caves should be determined, as well, he said.
"If there are no burials, we have to check with the spiritual and cultural importance before people can go niele (snoop) into places as significant as these," said Maxwell. "If it was a burial ground or there are legends that it was a burial ground, access should be blocked."
Thorne, though, believes that if caves are cared for and used for tours conducted properly, the sites will end up being preserved.
"Some caves have burials, but most don't," he said. "It's OK to show a cave Ñ you go through, you don't touch. Everything is precious and valuable, but it doesn't mean you can't go there."
Thorne said cave owners who inadvertently come across human bones face the same regulations as anyone who finds bones above ground: They must report the remains to their local burial council to determine if the bones stay in place or can be moved.
Mike Minn of Hana, a member of the Maui/Lanai Islands Burial Council, would like to see jurisdiction of the caves addressed. At the moment, those who own the land above the caves have been given authority over what lies beneath. Minn doesn't think that's right.
He also agrees with Maxwell regarding spiritual importance.
"We have to show respect to the original users of the caves," said Minn. "Something needs to be done."
During the last session, the state Legislature asked that regulations be drawn up to safeguard the natural resources of caves and lava tubes. The intent of the law recognizes the spiritual and cultural value of such places along with biological and geological resources or deposits.
Members of the task force come from around the state and include leaders of various burial councils, cave owners, researchers and state officials representing agencies such as the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the Division of Forestry and Wildlife and SHPD. After hearings in each of the counties, the group will prepare a draft law for legislators.