A bill that would require public safety agencies to seek reimbursement from hikers who are rescued while trespassing on public trails is making its way through the state Legislature.
State Sen. Mike Gabbard introduced Senate Bill 248, which also would impose fines of $500 to $1,000 in addition to search and rescue costs.
Gabbard, (D, Kapolei-Makakilo), said he was inspired to introduce the bill after seeing news last fall of four men who entered the Manoa Falls trail after it was closed due to rockfall hazards following a landslide. After some research he thought fines made sense as a deterrent for such incursions.
The measure would apply to those who knowingly enter a closed trail or disregard clearly posted signs, and proposes fines of $500 for the first offense, $750 for the second and $1,000 for third and subsequent offenses.
“Ultimately the intention of the bill is to start the conversation of the lack of personal responsibility when a person chooses to ignore trail closures,” Gabbard said. “We know it’s not cheap to do helicopter rescues. … It just seems like OK, if you’re willfully disobeying the law and you get caught out there, how is it that Hawaii taxpayers are supposed to pay for your stupidity?”
The bill was heard in the Senate Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs earlier this month. It awaits further hearings in the Judiciary and Ways and Means committees before going to the full Senate for a vote.
Gabbard said it was important for lawmakers to have this conversation, given the increasing number of hikers who are drawn to dangerous and off-limits hikes due to social media.
“I think it would be a good deterrent for people taking chances,” he said.
Suzanne Case, chairwoman of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, submitted written testimony in support of the measure but expressed some concerns that penalties absent enforcement and citations are clearly not a deterrent.
She also noted that it is the counties’ responsibility to conduct search and rescue activities, not the state’s.
“While this may be an incentive for people to obey the rules, it could also discourage people from calling for help,” Case said.
The Honolulu Fire Department did not submit testimony, but does not support the bill due to those same concerns, according to Capt. Scot Seguirant.
“The Honolulu Fire Department considered assessing fees for rescues but decided not to pursue the option, as individuals may be reluctant to or will not call for help during an emergency situation, which may cause the incident to escalate and further endanger the individuals or emergency responders,” he said in an email. “Therefore, we are not in support of Bill 248.”
Capt. Stephen Gerona III of the Honolulu Police Department’s Specialized Services Division testified in support of the bill, saying it would allow for the recovery of costs associated with the search and rescue of individuals who “willfully disregarded their own safety, despite warning signs.”
Gerona said the bill would further discourage individuals by increasing penalties for unlawfully entering trails closed to the public.
Under state law, trespassing on closed state trails already carries fines of $500 to $1,000. With the passage of the bill, someone who is trespassing and rescued would pay additional fines of $500 to $1,000.
Five individuals also testified in support of the bill, including Michael Wee, who said, “You can’t fix stupid, so make them pay. People who trespass and ignore warning signs consume our rescue resources and risk the lives of our first-responders. I would hope that requiring agencies to seek reimbursement would be a deterrent to stupid human behavior.”
No written testimony opposing the bill was submitted to the committee.
The number of rescues on Oahu’s mountains nearly tripled between 2006 and 2016, according to Senate Bill 1068, introduced by Sen. Laura Thielen (D, Hawaii Kai-Waimanalo-Kailua). The bill seeks more funding for the state’s Na Ala Hele trail system and a public-awareness campaign on hiking safety and etiquette.
Thielen noted that rescues involving helicopters cost about $1,500 per hour.
Another bill, by state Rep. Calvin Say (D, Palolo-St. Louis Heights-Kaimuki), suggests hiring residential caretakers at high-use hiking trails to prevent vandalism and assist hikers, therefore reducing the need for rescues. Say called it an “old-fashioned idea” that came out of a town hall meeting addressing concerns about after-hours loiterers at Waahila Ridge in St. Louis Heights.
Caretakers were used on Kauai and the Big Island during the 1970s, he said, so the concept is not new.
“When you have the presence of a park-keeper, you won’t get as much graffiti or destruction of our comfort stations. It helps with the upkeep of the park itself,” he said.
SENATE BILL 248 BY THE NUMBERS
Additional fine that would be imposed for a first offense
Fine for second offenses
Fine for third and subsequent offenses
Approximate cost of a helicopter per hour for rescue