Monday, October 12, 2009

Our National Parks: So Wild That You Should Sue?

I've worked a few seasons as a national park ranger, and I can tell you that a lot of visitors seem to leave their brains in the iron ranger (i.e., that old-style fee-collection canister) when they arrive in a national park. There is a persistent public perception that national parks should be, as one ranger friend of mine put it, "Nerf World." Forget that wilderness is truly wild. What many visitors want is a safely insulated experience, in which they can admire the scenery but be protected from all the kick-ass forces of nature.

If you've been watching Ken Burns' documentary The National Parks: America's Best Idea (free episodes are still viewable online), then you'll know that some of the biggest proponents of national parks would heartily disagree. Take, for example, John Muir. That mountain man rode down an avalanche and almost got blown over a waterfall in Yosemite. Do you think he'd ever agree that park visitors should be able to forget their common sense in the wild? Or take Edward Abbey, who argued in his classic rant Desert Solitaire that national parks shouldn't be "improved" to the point where visitors can simply drive along paved roads and never truly encounter nature. As Abbey wrote in The Journey Home, "To those who see our land in that manner, the best reply is, yes, you are right, it is a dangerous and terrible place. Enter at your own risk. Carry water. Avoid the noonday sun. Try to ignore the vultures. Pray frequently."

But as a nation, perhaps we've lost this wilderness ethic. Case in point: the National Park Service (NPS) just paid $5 million dollars to the surviving family members of two hikers who died in Haleakala National Park on Maui in 2003. A USA Today article about the case seemed sympathetic to the family, focusing on the tragedy of the deaths. But was the park really to blame? Consider:
  • The family was irresponsibly hiking off-trail in Haleakala NP. If you do something that a national park advises against, you clearly do so at your own risk. If I break the rules, should I then hold the park rangers responsible for my foolishness? The USA Today article stated that "Makahiku Falls, off an established trail in the park, is considered a destination for tourists." That's just not true. And besides, considered by who? Travel guidebook authors who often encourage trespassing and damaging off-trail exploration? (Yes, I'm talking about you, Maui Revealed -- or as some locals are now calling it, "Maui Reviled.")
  • The trail-of-use that the family chose to hike was obviously dangerous. I've been to Haleakala NP at least a dozen times over the last 15 years, and never once have I been tempted to hike down to Makahiku Falls, because it's clearly dangerous. (See photo above.) Do you really need a park ranger to remind you that hiking on these crumbling cliffs or in the rushing stream near these falls might be fatal? No. The family's lawyer said, "They [the family] had no reason to think that walking across these rocks was dangerous." Really? Even though there were dark clouds already threatening rain overhead? And the water was flowing quickly? Which brings me to my next point.
  • Hawaii is known for its flash floods, especially in this area of Maui. If you've been to the Kipahulu section of Haleakala NP, you'll know that it's impossible not to notice the several, and now dozens, of signs warning about the hazardous potential for flash floods. In fact, this applies to almost every mountain stream and waterfall pool on the island. Any tourist who goes for a waterfall swim or stream hike has to take responsibility for her or his own safety. The family's lawsuit claimed an electronic warning sign was not working on the day they visited the park. Having been to the park many times both before and after this fatal incident, I can testify that there are plenty of other non-electronic warning signs indicating the dangers of hiking off-trail and swimming in the stream. You just have to take time to stop and read them.
  • Visitors who cause search-and-rescues (SARs) cost parks money. Lawsuits are even more debilitating to park operations, and do little, if anything to improve visitor safety. Haleakala NP rangers spent four days looking for the bodies of the two hikers who died in the flash flood. SAR operations are incredibly costly, and if I were to ever cause one as a result of my own foolish actions, I would feel guilty about it. (In fact, visitors who get into trouble in national parks rarely donate money back to the park, to help defray the cost of their own rescue.) I certainly wouldn't sue the park, whether out of greed or grief, if a family member died while hiking. National parks have enough issues with budget shortfalls and maintenance backlogs that million-dollar lawsuits will only impede their ability to do their jobs.
I think this case is most remarkable for the attitude of the Brown family, who blamed their unfortunate wilderness encounter on national park staff. Perhaps it's symptomatic not only of the heedless culture of national park tourism, but also common tourist attitudes in Hawaii. People often come to these islands expecting paradise, and they typically behave however they want to, regardless of the effects on Hawaii's natural environment (hello, water-wasting golf courses!) or cultural heritage (trespassing on sacred Native Hawaiian sites just to get a photograph). As more people visit Hawaii and its national parklands, it's time for each of us to take responsibility for our actions. Show some aloha 'aina (respect, care and love for the land). And don't blame park rangers when you get into trouble and it's clearly, if also tragically, your own fault.


  1. Can you cite for me where "Maui Revealed" encourages trespassing and off-trail exploration?I'm curious.

  2. Sure, just take a look at the "Beaches," "Hiking" and "Adventures" sections of any "Revealed" guide (including "Maui Revealed"), and you'll notice countless mentions of trespassing across private land, advising readers to ignore posted safety warning or private / gov't. property signs, and a general lack of respect for island residents and their property. Or, next time you're in the islands, strike up a conversation with a local about what they object to in the "Revealed" guides RE: trespassing and off-trail exploration.

    What is most unfortunate is that the "Revealed" guides have resulted in some beautiful island spots being closed to tourists forever, like the Blue Pool off Ulaino Rd near Hana. If the "Revealed" guides has been more respectful of islanders RE: trespassing, private property and taking care of one's own personal safety, perhaps places like this would still be open to visitors.