[ OUR OPINION ]
When it comes to nature,
signs cant guarantee safety
HOW the state balances safety and access to its natural areas will be a challenging undertaking in the wake of a judge's decision in the Sacred Falls case. What constitutes adequate warning is so difficult to define that the state may choose to close off a number of trails, shorelines, mountain ridges and other park facilities to shield people from potential danger and to protect taxpayers from costly lawsuits.
THE ISSUEA judge rules that the state did not do enough to warn Sacred Falls visitors of possible dangers
Yet Hawaii's natural beauty is what attracts tourists and provides residents with the recreational activities that are a big part of island life. Denying visitors the opportunity to enjoy the state's parks will surely hurt tourism and while it is possible to deduce that specific physical conditions may present hazards, it is impossible to predict every whim of nature and human action.
Circuit Judge Dexter Del Rosario's ruling that the state was at fault for the death and injuries in the 1999 rock fall at the park was based on what he deemed inadequate warning, despite at least 10 signs at the trail head and along the trail itself. He cited the poor condition, placement, wording and a lack of standard formats of the signs as inadequate to inform clearly of the dangers of the narrow, geologically unstable valley. Further, he faulted the state for promoting the park in tourist literature and on Web sites even though officials were aware of that rock falls could occur.
Assuming that standardized signs with distinct warnings of all known dangers will be enough to release the state from liability, what remains unpredictable is the human response. Even at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where thousands troop to see fresh lava flows and where numerous obvious signs spell out the risks of toxic fumes, incredible heat and unstable terrain, many visitors blithely walk past them without a second glance.
Although visitors are probably well aware of natural hazards in their home areas, they may be uninformed about the disparate conditions in Hawaii. The tourism industry's cultivated image of Hawaii as paradise seems to lull people into thinking that nature in the islands is benign. The state and the industry - including the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, which produced brochures promoting Sacred Falls as a "nature walk for families" - clearly bear a burden in this effort.
A major part of the problem is the inadequate funding of state park operations. Only $750,000 annually is designated to maintain 54 parks and 14 additional facilities, such as viewing areas and waysides, that cover more than 26,800 acres. Since nearly 80 percent of the parks' users are visitors, it behooves the industry that benefits and the state that gains revenues to steer more money toward parks.
Meanwhile, Hawaii lawmakers should fashion legislation that would limit the state's liability, as have California and other states. Park officials should devise signs and warnings that will withstand legal challenge. Even all of this effort, however, cannot control irresponsible behavior. People who discount the forces of nature do so at their own risk. While the families of the Sacred Falls victims surely suffered great losses, it would be a shame if lawsuits rob everyone of the enjoyment of the outdoors.
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