Editorial: Reckless hikers should pay fines

Honolulu Star Advertiser - February 26, 2019

The lure of Hawaii’s trails always has been great, but since the advent of social media that guide visitors to hidden attractions, it’s been supercharged. The world now has access to information about nature adventures in the islands previously known to kamaaina, and the visitor population, now numbering close to 10 million annually, is taking advantage of that.

In addition to the wear and tear on natural sites, the crowds have led to an increase in mishaps requiring an assist from government rescue crews. Of course, the wayward hiker could very well be a local resident as well as a tourist, but it’s the peak level of visitors to Hawaii that has compounded the search-and-rescue burden.

And that helps to make the case for the latest attempt to recoup some of the cost of intrepid hikers ignoring no-trespass and trail-closed signs. Senate Bill 248, sponsored by state Sen. Mike Gabbard, would seek reimbursement of rescue costs from hikers who are rescued while trespassing.

Current law gives public agencies the discretion to recoup costs, but the bill would make it mandatory for government entities that conduct search-and-rescue operations to do so. Further, the bill would increase the penalties for trespassing or violating the conditions of any permit: First, second and third violations would incur respective fines of $500, $750 and $1,000.

The measure seems to have some firepower, as the committees on Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs; and Water and Land have pushed it along unamended.

In the committee report, lawmakers asserted that “unlawfully entering trails that have been closed to the public puts those entering the trails at significant danger of injury, risks damage to native habitats and other natural resources, and potentially requires difficult and expensive rescue operations to retrieve persons who are injured or become lost … the costs associated with the search and rescue of individuals who willfully disregard their own safety by ignoring posted warning signs are considerable.”

This does seem warranted, given the determination shown by some foolhardy adventurers to forge ahead.

Example: The Haiku Stairs, a steep climb up ridgeline stairs to a Koolau summit in Kaneohe, has been closed for years, and there’s ample warning of the fact in several social media channels as well as in signs at its closest access point, which requires trespassing on private property.

That has not stopped trekkers from striking out on the climb in the pre-dawn hours when they won’t be caught by guards and making the climb, anyway. There have been numerous rescues when the hiker finds it exceeds his or her skill and endurance levels.

Gabbard said the impetus for the bill was the case last fall when four men entered the Manoa Falls trail after it was closed due to rockfall hazards following a landslide.

SB 248 has support from some rescuers themselves. Capt. Stephen Gerona II of the Honolulu Police Department Specialized Services Division said in written testimony that HPD backs the measure because it allows recovery of costs for rescuing those “who have willfully disregarded their own safety.”

The fines, Gerona said, also would send a message of discouragement to others contemplating taking the risk of an illicit hike.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources has backed the measure, although its director, Suzanne Case, has cautioned that fear of incurring a fine might cause violators, reluctant to call for help, to get into worse trouble.

That’s a consideration. But assuming the state redoubles efforts to check that clear signs are posted, the more likely outcome is that the risk-takers will opt out. And that would be a mercy for the state’s strained resources, not to mention for hiker safety.