Steve Vujnovich, owner of Trail Rhythms, guides rappelling eco tours in Paauilo’s Kalopa Gulch regularly. In 2016, he found more than 1,000 pounds of trash in the gulch. Earlier this month he reached a breaking point.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Zambeck, Paradise Perspectives

On July 3, he discovered a Nissan four-door sedan 65 feet down the gulch, along with the usual trash. “Somebody rolled the car into the gulch, with gas, oils and radiation fluid leaking. I knew these would eventually seep into the seasonal stream and then into the ocean on the Hamakua Coast so it concerned me,” he said. Even the keys were still in the car, so he called the Honokaa Police Station and filled out a report.

“I spoke with Officer Joseph Passmore the day I found the car,” Vujnovich said. “He and several other offices came out that afternoon. Then they traced the VIN number which showed the car hadn’t been stolen. The owner left Hawaii in 2015 but didn’t transfer the ownership to anybody. I don’t know why they can’t track the car to their driver’s license and charge the owner with criminal littering.”

The police told him they couldn’t remove it from the gulch, so he next contacted the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) for help. Vujnovich said the department informed him it was out of their jurisdiction. He was also told he needed liability insurance if he were to take on the project. Having lived on Hawaii Island for 17 years, he saw a need for this type of project and felt he had a new mission.

In June, Vujnovich paid for the insurance and became the only single pitch instructor for American Mountain Guides Association on the island. He also formed Trail Rhythms, LLC as a platform from which he could develop a new program centered on cleaning out gulches islandwide.

To move the program forward, last week he called Honokaa Police Station Capt. Andrew Burian. “I talked to him, told him what was going on and he gave me the go ahead,” Vujnovich said. “He approved having the police there while we shut down the road to pull the car out.” Next, Vujnovich devised a plan how he and employees from his other company, Total Painting & Remodel, could pull the car out of the gulch. “They repelled down into the gulch with me,” he said. Big equipment was also needed.

“At the last minute I got a call from fellow resident Gary DeRego from DeRego’s Services who offered his heavy equipment and team to pull the car out for nothing,” Vujnovich said. They worked together for more than three hours Tuesday afternoon, while he climbed down the gulch, attached a chain around the car’s axle and helped guide it up the hill. David Francis, a DeRego’s employee, worked alongside Vujnovich. During one attempt, the car slid back down the steep hillside. “It’s a typical day,” he said.

“They also charge you to give them a car for $75-$100 a ton,” Carvalho said. “They stopped paying for the scrap metal about two years ago. I guess the Asian countries don’t want to buy any scrap metal anymore.” Hunters’ cameras have now been installed at the gulch to prevent people from dumping there.

Steve Vujnovich finds a pig carcass among other trash in the gultch

“I’ve realized this is my calling. My goal is to launch a pilot program, document trash found and set an example to help owners be responsible,” Vujnovich said. “I want to promote islandwide gulches awareness.” The program, called Big Island Gulch and Waterways Eco, is “an evolution in process,” he said. “I’m learning more and more about what the program needs,” Vujnovich remarked. “Over the past few months we’ve found everything from pig carcasses to 25 plus gallons of motor oil and tractor parts in the gulch.”

He continued, “Through the waterways the trash makes its way to the reefs, which coincides with all of our reef projects and Surfrider Foundation. I want to educate people on how reachable gulches and underpasses are, how they’re being used as trash dumps and how they can be part of an organized team. There are thousands of waterways on the island that are suffering as well.”

Earlier this month Vujnovich presented his program to Paauilo Mauka Association for their support. “It’s a start. I’ve also presented to every volunteer program, such as Keep Puako Beautiful and many other nonprofit organizations who expressed the need to for getting waterways and gulches cleaned. I’m waiting to confirm an official cleanup date,” he said.

Vujnovich also has a working relationship with local Department of Public Works (DPW). “We gather litter and trash and stack it off to the side of the road in bags and they pick it up,” he said. “This is not a money problem. I think it’s more about getting everybody on board with the program to keep gulches clean and haul off cars. If you study how Yosemite has evolved into its program, it’s a great template or platform. It gets everybody to work together and practice to leave no trace.”

The state has offered to grant Vujnovich permits for conducting group trips and cleanup efforts in gulches on state land. “I want to train people in their communities who want to get their gulches clean and work with DPW to come and pick it up,” he said. “State, county and police people need to talk to each other. That’s the only way this will work.”

By Landry Fuller, Special to West Hawaii Today
As featured in West Hawaii Today July 23, 2017

Watch aerial footage of an abandoned car pulled out of Kalopa Gulch on the Big Island of Hawaii.

(video by Paradise Perspectives)