Danny Boren opened Maui’s first zipline, Skyline Eco-Adventures, on the slopes of Haleakala in 2002. The idea came to Boren while he was traveling with his father in Costa Rica, where there are numerous zipline “canopy tours” designed to take tourists safely through a sensitive and rarely visited ecosystem. Boren, who was raised on Maui, wanted to construct
a similar eco-tour to educate visitors while simultaneously helping to preserve Hawai‘i’s delicate forest environment. In their first month, Skyline entertained only six zippers. But word of the no-sweat adrenaline sport spread quickly, and today Skyline moves hundreds of people a day through the treetops; they’ve even opened a second zipline at Ka‘anapali. Today there are three zipline operators on Maui and four on Kaua‘i.
The industry has snowballed nationally, too. The earliest ziplines were constructed as part of personal development challenge courses. In the past five years, dozens of commercial ziplines have popped up in Alaska, Colorado, California, Utah and other states. While some function purely as amusement rides, many tout their operations as eco-tours, appealing to a new breed of environmentally conscious traveler.
But why do ziplines, which require platforms fixed to trees and steel cables strung through natural areas, qualify as “eco-tours”? Is it because they’re low-impact or that they teach ecology? “It’s really both,” says Boren, who is also president of the Hawai‘i Ecotourism Association, an organization that defines ecotourism as “nature- and culture-based tourism that is ecologically sustainable and supports the well-being of local communities.” Skyline’s ziplines, for example, employ spacer blocks that keep the cables off the tree trunks and allow the trees to thrive. “It’s obviously in our best interest to keep the trees healthy,” he adds, “which is why we have a certified arborist out to inspect the trees multiple times a year.”
In Makawao, Maui, Pi‘iholo Ranch is opening a six-line zip tour on its 800-acre working range, where deer roam freely and nene geese fly overhead. “While we’re selling a ride, people will leave with a knowledge and understanding of Hawai‘i that they previously didn’t have,” says Jeff Baldwin, who runs the ranch with his brother Duke and his father, Paniolo Hall-of-Famer Peter Baldwin. Jeff Baldwin wants to educate visitors about the fragility of the ecosystem through which his zipline runs. “There’s only 7 percent of native forest left,” he says. “When you think about the fact that Hawai‘i has 50 percent of all the endangered animals and plants in the US, you realize, boy, Hawai‘i’s just a real gem.”
Between aerial traverses along the Skyline’s Haleakala zip, I appreciate the ground time as we hike through the forest of sharply aromatic (albeit invasive) eucalyptus trees. At each zip, we learn about an endangered bird. Our guide Sal points to a photo of the green-yellow kikekoa, the Maui parrotbill. Endangered by predator rats and feral pigs that destroy its habitat, it’s now one of Hawai‘i’s rarest birds, Sal says, and it’s found only in East Maui forests.
“Makes you want to jump off a cliff,” he continues, shaking his head. “Well,” he says, leading us to the edge of a ravine over which we’re about to make a screaming, 40-mph traverse, “we’ve got one for you.”