Inside the long, fraught recovery of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

This article appears in the Nov 2019 issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine

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THE EARTHQUAKE STRUCK at 12:32 p.m. Hawai‘i Standard Time. It was Friday, May 4, 2018, and Jon Christensen, the chief of facilities management at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, was in the midst of a training at the Hawai‘i Innovation Center in Hilo, a seaside port town on the east side of Hawai‘i Island. Without warning, the building began to shake. Christensen got down on the floor and braced himself. The vibration turned to a rolling wave, then quickly subsided.

A 6.9 on the Richter scale, it was the strongest earthquake to hit Hawai‘i since 1975, yet Christensen was calm. He was no stranger to the earth’s rumblings. He had lived and worked on Kīlauea, one of the island’s four active volcanoes, for more than three years, and had served as the landscape architect at Grand Teton National Park before that. He was trained in emergency response. For instance, he knew that in an earthquake he should wait until the shaking stops, then exit the building as quickly as possible. So when the tremors ceased, Christensen walked swiftly to his car and sped back to the park, 25 miles and 4,000 feet above Hilo.

Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park is one of the country’s oldest national parks, established in 1916, three weeks before the creation of the National Park Service and 43 years before Hawai‘i became a state. The park is both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and is nearly the size of the entire island of Kauai. It comprises 524 square miles, two active volcanoes, and countless dreamlike landscapes, which morph into one another within the span of just a few miles, misty ‘ohi‘a forests melding into barren lava fields, which green into waving grasslands. It is an extravagantly rich biological oasis on an island that already has more than its fair share of ecosystems: Hawai‘i Island is barely the size of Connecticut, and yet it contains 10 different climate zones. A person can drive from snow-capped mountains to white-sand beaches in an hour and a half.

Since well before Kīlauea became a national park, when Europeans and Americans first began making the journey, initially on horseback and later by car, the one thing every visitor has come to see is the lava. Though Kīlauea’s crater is a fraction of the park’s lands, it is undeniably its centerpiece, attracting two million visitors in 2017. When your main attraction is an active volcano, however, as the saying goes, the only constant is change. And in 2018, the summit underwent a transformation few could have imagined.

The earthquake on May 4, centered in Kīlauea’s east rift zone in Puna, downslope of the main caldera and outside the park boundary, was only the largest seismic event that day. One hour earlier, a 5.4 earthquake had rocked the east side of the island. Bobby Camara, a retired park ranger who was in Hilo that day, recalled that “the plate glass at the old National Dollar store at Kamehameha and Kalakaua waved as if it were made of plastic.” The day before, a 5.0 quake had caused the partial collapse of the crater at Puʻu Oʻo, a nearby volcanic cone formed during Kīlauea’s 1983 eruption, sending a plume of red ash billowing into the sky. Those were just the big ones. Hundreds of smaller earthquakes detonated just below the surface.

Park personnel had been warned ahead of time that the volcano was gearing up for a potential eruption. The geologists at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory had noticed an increase in pressure within the volcano’s magma system, which branches out from a main conduit like feeder roots, and they had begun notifying officials of potential seismic activity as early as April 17. In particular, the observatory warned of severe earthquakes, potential rift eruptions, and the overflow of the lava lake at Halema‘uma‘u Crater, within Kīlauea’s caldera, which, ominously, had begun to rise.

As Christensen drove from Hilo back to the park, the fireworks began. The ground beneath Leilani Estates, a housing subdivision situated squarely in the lower east rift zone, opened up. Lava spewed from at least six different fissures, sending molten rock more than 100 feet in the air. Roads, farms, and forests were cleaved in two as if by a red-hot knife. The lava claimed at least three buildings that first afternoon (the structural toll would eventually climb to more than 720) and spurred the evacuation of 1,800 people.

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USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory

In the park, Christensen and his crew readied facilities for a potential eruption. At that point, the primary threat was ash, which can ruin computers and vehicle air-filtration systems. It’s easy to think of national parks as large expanses of wilderness, but in terms of maintenance and operations, they are more akin to small cities. Every park has roads to maintain, fleets of vehicles to service, wastewater to treat. Keeping these systems online requires extensive networks of both physical and digital infrastructure. To prevent ash from damaging equipment, maintenance crews closed windows and covered computer equipment with garbage bags. They shrouded trucks with tarps and checked backup generators to ensure they had gas. They shut off propane. When every possible precaution had been taken, Christensen drove to his house just outside the park, and waited.

In the weeks that followed, a near-continuous onslaught of seismic activity at the summit remade Kīlauea. The eruptions in the lower rift zone had become a release valve for the building pressure, and the lava at Halema‘uma‘u Crater drained away, like hot water in a pipe. As it did, the crater began to cave in, or “deflate” in volcanological terms. With each “collapse explosion,” which came every few days, entire sections of the surrounding rim sank into the crater. They took with them park infrastructure, including a portion of Crater Rim Drive and an entire overlook parking lot. (No one was hurt. The parking lot in question had been closed since 2008, and the park as a whole had been evacuated by May 10.)

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USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory

By August, when the eruptions finally ceased, the crater at the summit was 12 times its original size. It was now nearly two miles wide and 2,000 feet deep, compared to just 280 feet before. For Christensen, it was astonishing to witness the scale of transformation. “When there’s a tornado or a hurricane or a flood or a fire, usually the land is still intact,” he said. “When a volcano erupts, it either builds new land and covers it with a hundred feet of lava, or that land collapses and dramatically alters the way the landscape looks.” As a landscape architect, he said, it was “fascinating.”

Fascinating, but still a disaster. Damage to roads, trails, buildings, and infrastructure had been severe. A series of shallow earthquakes had ruptured water and sewage pipes, and the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum, a popular destination perched on the rim of the caldera, was intact but structurally compromised. As national news media descended on Puna and the subdivisions claimed by the lava, the park limped toward its scheduled  reopening date, September 22—National Public Lands Day. A geomorphology team assessed the stability of areas most affected by the seismic activity, while road and trail crews patched holes and cracks with cold-patch asphalt, temporary fixes until more permanent repairs could be made.

In May 2019, one year later, I flew from Honolulu to Hawai‘i Island (which everyone calls the Big Island) to see the damage for myself, but also to understand how the collapse of the crater would affect the future of the park, not just in the months ahead but in the long term. As I drove from Hilo to the park’s visitor center, the vegetation by the side of the road changed from coconut palms and towering eucalyptus to hāpu‘u ferns and charismatic, red-flowering ‘ohi‘a lehua (Metrosideros polymorpha). Although several areas of the national park had reopened since the events of 2018, significant portions remained closed owing to safety concerns. In those areas, giant, lavaless fissures, deep enough that I couldn’t see the bottom, gaped behind barricades of bollards and bright orange safety cones. Lodged between the walls of one crevice was a chunk of asphalt striped with a double yellow line.

Leading my tour was Saylor Moss, a historical landscape architect at Mount Rainier National Park who had come to Hawai‘i on a four-month detail. We were well beyond the Area Closed signs, in an off-limits section of the park along the north rim of the caldera, and we walked a paved road riven with holes the size of dining room tables. More disconcerting than those, Moss said, were the deformations that rippled across the roadway, because you couldn’t know what was beneath them: ground or a yawning chasm.

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National Park Service

Moss’s job was to assist the park in its recovery effort by reviewing plans and contracts for a series of major roadway projects, most of which involved some level of historic preservation. The 10.6-mile loop that comprises Crater Rim Drive—until a portion of it fell into the crater—is part of a nationally listed historic district, a 5,000-acre area that  includes everything from overlooks and parking lots to stone culverts, as well as viewsheds and natural landscape features. “The roads in these big national parks were never built to be the straightest line from point A to point B. They were built to be an experience unto themselves,” Moss said. Her role at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park was making sure that when a road was repaired, “they don’t just fix it up, straighten it out, and make it perfect for modern conveniences.”

Although park maintenance crews lead some rehabilitation projects, major roadway projects are the purview of the Federal Highway Administration. Moss was working with Christensen and other park personnel to develop and review roadway plans that complied with all laws pertaining to preservation and maintained the integrity of the original design. As Moss explained this, we reached the edge of the caldera, where Halema‘uma‘u Crater and its lava lake used to be. In its place was a conical pit, filled with debris. The already-desolate landscape was made all the more ominous by the way it seemed to smoke: Dozens of steam vents sent white tendrils crawling up the sides of the crater, while a barely visible blue haze was a sign of putrescent sulfur. It was my first time seeing the crater post-eruption, and the realization that the earth could undergo such a rapid and violent transformation made me nervous to be standing so close to the crater’s edge, particularly because, while seismic activity had subsided, there were still several small earthquakes every day.

The altered landscape illustrated one of the key challenges facing park staff. The view from the crater rim had been one of the park’s most popular attractions since 2008, when lava returned to Halema‘uma‘u Crater after a 26-year absence. At dusk, visitors would flock to the crater lookouts to watch as the lava lake’s fiery glow turned the entire night sky red. With the volcano dark, visitor numbers were down. “Episodes of change, renewal, destruction are a normal part of this park,” Christensen explained, “as are wide changes in visitation, which tends to be much higher in times of active lava flows.” Crowds had begun to amass in previously overlooked areas, such as the steam vents near the visitor center and the Kīlauea Iki trailhead, now the only place to reach the floor of a volcanic crater.

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Timothy A. Schuler

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National Park Service

How best to accommodate these new visitor flows was just one of many decisions facing park staff. Other, more fundamental questions included whether access should be restored to certain parts of the park, including the area along the southern rim, where a barricade currently prevents visitors from going beyond Keanak.ako‘i Crater, and the main caldera itself, which before the collapse could be traversed via the Halema‘uma‘u Trail. Could access be safely restored to these areas? If so, what form should that access take? These were questions park personnel were trying to answer, Moss said. It was clear that the recovery effort touched every department within the park service—graphics, interpretation, maintenance—and that the staff’s struggles to accommodate visitors were compounded both by limited budgets and the inherent challenges of working in a landscape that is geologically certain to change, either gradually or quite possibly violently, through means that might obliterate every natural or human-made feature that is a part of it. As Christensen put it, “When you work on an active volcano, you have to acknowledge that man’s footprint on the land is impermanent.”

***

IT IS IRONIC THAT MARK TWAIN, a man who spent a significant amount of time in Hawai‘i and visited Kīlauea, reportedly said, “Buy land—they’re not making it anymore,” because Hawai‘i is one of the few places in the world where new land is being made all the time. The Big Island is one of the youngest landmasses on Earth, created just several million years ago, according to geologists, by an underwater magma plume known as a hot spot. Volcanic eruptions piled up lava until a seamount began to form. Eventually, that seamount reached the surface, and pioneering plant and animal species transformed the lava into fertile ground.

Scientists generally believe that one hot spot is responsible for the entire Hawaiian archipelago. Because the Earth’s tectonic plates are not fixed, as the Pacific plate drifted north and west, it pulled newly formed islands away from the magma plume, which then generated a new landmass. Ni‘ihau, located at the northwest end of the main island chain, is the oldest of the eight Hawaiian Islands, while the Big Island is located at the far southeast end and is the youngest. It is also the most volcanically active; both Mauna Loa and Kīlauea have erupted in the past 35 years. Even the Big Island has drifted away from the hot spot, however. Today, a new seamount, L.o‘ihi, is forming southwest of Kīlauea, its rising peak still a half mile below the surface.

For Native Hawaiians, the islands’ volcanoes are not just natural wonders but sacred dwelling places of deities and ancestors, which sometimes are one and the same. Kīlauea, which in Hawaiian means “spewing” or “much spreading,” is home to Pelehonuamea, literally “Pele the sacred earth person” but often referred to as Madame Pele, the volcano goddess, or the goddess of fire. Characterized as both a creator and destroyer, Pele is one of the many deities who appear in Hawaiian chants. She is both greater and lesser than the gods of monotheistic religions: Some Hawaiians, particularly those whose families hail from Puna or Ka‘u, consider themselves direct descendants of Pele. This includes the late scholar Mary Kawena Pukui, the author of Place Names of Hawaiʻi and the Hawaiian Dictionary. Prior to European contact, some descendant families carried the bones of family members to the rim of the caldera and, in elaborate religious ceremonies, threw them into the crater along with other offerings.

If a person was paying attention, one heard local residents’ reverence for Pele in news coverage of the 2018 eruption, which often was referred to with gendered pronouns. Even those who lost their homes paid their respects to Pele. “There’s nothing to do when Pele makes up her mind but accept her will,” one evacuee told the New York Times in May 2018. A retired schoolteacher characterized the loss of her house as an offering. “I’ve been in her backyard for 30 years,” she said. “In that time I learned that Pele created this island in all its stunning beauty. It’s an awe-inspiring process of destruction and creation, and I was lucky to glimpse it.”

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USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory

What happens on Hawai‘i’s volcanoes is a matter not only of geology but of genealogy, and subsequently they represent some of the islands’ most contested territory. In 2018, the Hawai‘i State Supreme Court ruled in favor of a consortium planning to build a massive, billion-dollar telescope known as the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on the summit of Mauna Kea. In July 2019, the announcement that construction on the telescope project was imminent led to a months-long protest by Native Hawaiian kupuna (elders) and activists who argued that the project would desecrate the mountain and the ancestors who are buried there. Activists chained themselves to a cattle guard on Mauna Kea Access Road, setting off a movement that brought thousands of supporters to the Big Island and eventually expanded to include free classes on Native Hawaiian knowledge and history as a part of the ad hoc Pu‘uhonua o Pu‘uhuluhulu University. The protest, which is ongoing, made national headlines and drew support from the Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren and the actors Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Jason Momoa, among others.

The TMT protest was just the latest conflict in a long history of Western colonial interests exploiting Hawai‘i’s natural resources for commercial or institutional gain—a history that includes the establishment of Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. Among the earliest proponents of the park was Lorrin A. Thurston, a lawyer and businessman whose grandparents had come to Hawai‘i as Protestant missionaries in 1820. In 1889, Thurston, who later actively supported the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, leading the so-called Committee of Safety that deposed Queen Lili‘uokalani, used his position as the Kingdom of Hawai‘i’s Minister of the Interior to improve access to Kīlauea. Less than two years later, he formed the Kīlauea Volcano House Company and acquired a substantial interest in the area’s only existing hotels. He funded an international advertising campaign, promoting Kīlauea as a one-of-a-kind visitor destination. Over the next 20 years, Thurston continued to push the idea of a national park at Kīlauea, traveling to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress. In 1915, a delegation of 124 members of Congress visited Kīlauea. One year later, Congress passed legislation establishing what was then known as Hawaii National Park.

Park status protected Kīlauea and Mauna Loa from further development but also placed them under the ownership of the U.S. federal government. Since then, Native Hawaiians largely have been relegated to advisory roles (the park hired its first Native Hawaiian chief of interpretation in 2013), and certain decisions—such as the building of the Halema‘uma‘u Trail, which took visitors across the floor of the caldera, considered by some to be sacred—have been at odds with Hawaiian traditions. Although cultural sensitivity has increased over the years, in large part because of a resurgence of Hawaiian cultural practices, there are those who think that indigenous knowledge continues to be sidelined in the park.

Among them is Bobby Camara, the retired ranger who was in Hilo during the May 4 earthquake. Camara is tall and tan, with a white beard and a booming, baritone voice. He grew up in Honoka‘a, 40 miles north of Hilo, and now lives just outside the park, in a jungly subdivision of Volcano Village. When I visited Camara at his house, some of the frames on the wall were still crooked from the earthquakes a year before.

After the geologists at the Hawai‘i Volcano Observatory, perhaps no one was monitoring the 2018 eruption as closely as Camara. On May 1, he started a blog, Dispatches from Volcano, that was partly a public service announcement for neighbors and friends, partly a crash course on the park’s geology, and partly a meditation on the mystery of Pelehonuamea. (“Pelehonuamea is doing what she has done for centuries, for millennia…start, stop, pause, there, here, ma‘.o, ma‘ane‘i. She knows what she’s doing. We mortals are clueless.”) He posted screenshots of the observatory’s earthquake map and readouts from its electronic tiltmeters. He wrote two, three, sometimes four times a day, sitting at the computer in his upstairs loft, as his house shook.

One day, Camara told me, he felt 18 earthquakes in less than four hours. Most were 3s or 4s on the Richter scale, in other words not large, “but they were violent,” he said, “like bang!” He shouted and clapped his hands. “The pots on the rack would shake. It was terrifying.” The experience was especially disorienting for Camara, who as a child had a fear of earthquakes. It wasn’t so much a fear of death, he explained, but the sound of the earth grinding together or snapping apart.

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USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory

Camara is among the longer-serving rangers in the park’s history, having worked at the park off and on from 1982 to 2013, and he described much of the information provided by the park about Native Hawaiian knowledge as “superficial”— an upgrade from the term he used for the luaus offered at Hawai‘i’s beachside resorts. He said the National Park Service provides visitors with only the most cursory information about Hawaiian culture. “There’s no reason why, if you have an hour, or half an hour, or even 15 minutes, that you can’t fill that with really cool, accurate information,” he said. “Culture is not just myths and legends and flower lei. It’s, ʻHow did Native Hawaiians live here?’”

Camara is not Native Hawaiian himself, but a childhood filled with volcanic eruptions, the glows of which were visible from his house, informed his attitude toward Hawaiian traditions. “Growing up here, there’s a lot of stuff you understand just kind of, not necessarily innately, because that means something else, about Pele and her power,” he said. Camara eventually studied hula with Pualani Kanaka‘ole Kanahele, one of Hawai‘i’s most respected scholars and cultural practitioners, and sailed on the famed voyaging canoe Hōkūle‘a. Today, he serves with Kanahele and other Hawaiian elders on the park’s kupuna advisory council. He said the root of the interpretation problem lay not in any one person’s ignorance but in the organizational structure of the National Park Service. “When you have a system where people are cycling in and out, in and out, in and out, to climb the ladder, you end up with people who don’t know, who haven’t been here,” he said. “And it’s not their fault. It’s the system’s fault.”

Camara wasn’t the only person who mentioned this game of musical chairs when I visited the park in May. Moss couldn’t even tell me who the national director of the park service was when I asked. “It changes so often,” she said. At Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, Rhonda Loh was the acting superintendent, while superintendent Cindy Orlando served as the acting deputy regional director of the park service’s Pacific West regional office in San Francisco. “There’s a lot of ‘acting,’” Moss said.

This rotating cast of park leadership creates challenges generally, but it is especially problematic in Hawai‘i, whose natural and cultural environment has no analogue in the national park system. In today’s highly politicized climate, issues of culture and identity are often framed as social justice issues, but Hawaiian knowledge, like other indigenous traditions, is a resource that can and should inform the park’s planning, Camara said. Contained within chants and stories are references to Pele bringing “her many fires down to Puna” and leaving other places within the lower east rift zone as “cinder heaps.” For centuries, Hawaiians have been intimately aware of Kīlauea’s eruptive patterns, and there is knowledge to be gained from their stories.

For Camara, deference to Pele is a matter of both respect and prudence. He points to Chain of Craters Road, which runs 19 miles from Kīlauea’s summit to the coast. The road originally opened in 1965. Just four years later, Mauna Ulu, a vent on Kīlauea’s eastern slope, erupted and covered the road with lava. It was closed for 10 years. In 1979, Chain of Craters reopened to the public, but was destroyed again during the Pu‘u O‘o eruption in 1986. Since then, it has been rebuilt, then covered, then rebuilt again multiple times. In the 54 years since it was built, Chain of Craters Road has been drivable in its entirety for all of 13.

***

MORE THAN ANY OTHER NATURAL PHENOMENON, a volcano is a window into the universe. To witness an eruption is to be reminded of Earth’s celestial origins, that viscous, bright-burning, planetary blood radiating with the energy of its very formation, pooling in dips and crevices like water, but also defying gravity and moving upward, into the air, piling onto itself as if trying to reach outer space. We are drawn to active volcanoes because they are the closest we can get while on Earth to the cosmos, which exists beneath our feet as surely as above our heads and requires neither space-penetrating telescopes nor ground-penetrating seismometers to recognize.

This elemental power is what the men and women at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park are charged with understanding, interpreting, protecting, and making accessible to visitors. It’s an enormous responsibility. Right now, it is unclear how these sometimes competing priorities will be juggled. If, when, and how the still-closed portions of the park, such as the southern rim, will be reopened to the public is undetermined. But Jon Christensen is among those who agree with Camara. He sees the collapse of Halema‘uma‘u Crater as an opportunity to rethink past planning decisions.

“A lot of the big picture decisions about where facilities are located and how they’re built were made many decades ago, during the CCC or earlier,” Christensen said, referring to the Civilian Conservation Corps, which from 1933 to 1942 completed numerous infrastructure projects in America’s national parks. “Looking back, a lot of the things that are sometimes the most iconic in national parks are things that we wouldn’t build today with our current understanding of environment, culture, those sorts of things.” He added that “where facilities are really damaged, it gives us an opportunity to really look at, do we want to have things go back to being the same way they were before?”

In some cases, it’s a moot point: The section of Crater Rim Drive that fell into the crater will never be rebuilt. But for other attractions, such as the Jaggar Museum or the Thurston Lava Tube, both of which remain closed, the calculus is less straightforward. There is pressure from the park-going public not to alter iconic experiences and to reopen visitors’ favorite areas as quickly as possible, Christensen said, but there is also a high degree of uncertainty as to what will happen in and around the crater in the future. Meanwhile, federal law requires special consideration be given to resources that contribute to a historic landscape such as Crater Rim Drive. In essence, park personnel are faced with preserving a century of park history while simultaneously reckoning with that same history, all in the shadow of an active volcano.

To all this add the slew of restrictions that accompany federal recovery funding, much of which comes through the Emergency Relief for Federally Owned Roads (ERFO) program. The ERFO program is administered by the Federal Highway Administration, but its funds can be applied only to existing roads and trails that meet a certain threshold of damage. New facilities, or substantial changes to existing infrastructure, must be funded through separate funding streams, including revenues generated by park admission. The park’s nearly five-month-long closure in the summer of 2018, however, took a huge bite out of the park’s annual visitation, which saw a decrease of nearly 50 percent in 2018. Then, in the final weeks of 2018 and into the new year, a federal government shutdown—the longest in U.S. history—closed the park yet again for five weeks, further hurting revenues.

In June 2019, the park finally got some good news. Congress passed a disaster recovery bill that included funding for Hawai‘i Volcanoes projects. Not that recovery will be swift. With 25 employees, Christensen’s department has nearly as many vacancies—including an opening for a full-time landscape architect—as filled positions. The lack of staff stems from both budget shortfalls and the difficulties of recruiting staff in Hawai‘i, which holds the distinction of being the most remote developed landmass in the world, separated from its nearest neighbor (Kiribati) by 1,000 miles of ocean and the nearest continent (North America) by 2,000. Nonetheless, Christensen is hopeful that park experiences can be rethought in ways that satisfy visitors but also anticipate the destructive power of Kīlauea. “The facilities we build in a landscape should always be secondary to the landscape itself,” he said, especially when that landscape “can very dramatically and immediately assert its importance.”

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USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory

It’s difficult to predict whether the 2018 eruption will usher in a new era of culturally sensitive park planning, or if outside pressures will preserve the status quo. For his part, Christensen said he looks forward to continued discussions with the kupuna council, and that it is very possible that culturally sensitive areas will remain closed to the public, to respect Hawaiian customs and to avoid future catastrophic damage.

“Finding those synergies between being a steward of the park lands, of Hawaiian culture, and of taxpayer dollars, which are not always the easiest or most popular decisions to make,” can be tremendously difficult, Christensen said. But it’s important to get it right, he said, because “in the National Park Service, we’re in the forever business.” Of course, on Kīlauea, even forever can have an end date.