Park officials put brakes on Haleakala tour rides
Deaths at the Maui volcano prompt the restriction within park limitsSTORY SUMMARY »
National Park Service officials will indefinitely suspend the thrilling downhill bicycle rides at Haleakala National Park in less than a week following three fatal accidents at the Maui volcano in the past year.
The two-month ban on commercial tour starts Wednesday but is expected to last into next year as officials debate whether they can make operations safer. The prohibition will affect seven permit holders who serve 90,000 customers each year. Recreational bicyclists and companies operating outside the park's premises will still be allowed to ride.
The park's announcement comes one week after a 65-year-old woman from Ohio died in a bicycle accident, marking the third fatality involving a tour group since November.
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COURTESY NATIONAL PARK SERVICE
Rescue crews unsuccessfully tried to save the life of Roberta Blake, 65, of Ohio after she lost control of her bicycle in Haleakala National Park on Sept. 26. That fatality and two other bicycling deaths in the last year prompted the park to indefinitely ban commercial bike tours.
Haleakala National Park will ban bicycle tours for at least two months and revoke permits from all seven companies offering the popular rides down the 10,000-foot volcano following three people's deaths in the past year, officials said yesterday.
The prohibition, which begins Wednesday and does not cover recreational bicyclists or tours outside park jurisdiction, should last longer and could become permanent as officials debate whether the businesses can safely operate at the Maui summit, said park Superintendent Marilyn Parris.
"My experience tells me we are not going to do a thorough analysis in 60 days," she said. "It will go into 2008. I don't think there's going to be any miracle answer."
Plans to indefinitely halt an activity that serves 90,000 riders and brings some $10 million to the county's economy each year began last Thursday, a day after a tourist died when she crossed the center line during a sharp curve and collided with a tour van.
Roberta Blake, 65, of Amherst, Ohio, was on a Maui Mountain Cruisers tour, and the van belonged to Maui Downhill. Both companies declined comment yesterday.
In March a 44-year-old woman died when she rode off the road, four months after a man in his 70s flew over his handlebars, hit his head and died from a heart attack.
"The fatality last week was the tipping point for me," Parris said. "Right now the level of risk is too high."
Yesterday officials gave the seven tour companies -- operating on the 10 miles of park road and whose permits will be canceled -- 30 days from the start of the ban to provide comments for the park's consideration.
"It's going to affect us in a big way," said Ralph Johnson, owner of Bike It Maui, which has averaged about 100 clients a week since setting up shop six years ago.
Park officials say the tours, which have been around since the '80s, are dangerous because riders have to dodge tour buses and cars on a single lane of road that was built in the 1930s and lacks shoulders.
Five bicyclists have died on park roads in the past 10 years, and rangers respond to between four and eight calls a month involving bicycle mishaps, officials said. The speed limit ranges from 15 to 30 mph.
County Deputy Fire Chief Neal Bal said the park's decision was wise. "We feel it's a good idea that they have a hearing and look at the facts," he said.
The park's analysis, which will involve National Park Service officials in Washington, D.C., will look at safety plans but will not consider widening or putting guardrails on the historic road.
Ben Hall of Haleakala Bike Co., which runs bicycle tours inside and outside park boundaries and takes people on sightseeing van rides, expects to lose 20 percent of his business when the ban kicks in.
"They can't take my vehicle tour permit away," he said.
About five bicycle companies have county licenses to start their tours just outside the park near the 6,500-foot elevation mark, but several companies are known to operate illegally both inside and outside the summit, Parris said.
Visiting from Coquitlam, British Columbia, Peter Hiebert said he and wife Jennifer felt safe when they rode down Haleakala's slopes during their first trip to Maui in January 2006. He said canceling the tours would be "a shame."