Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Waivers for Risk Takers In National Parks

From a reader:

I enjoy your blog and would like to read your take on an issue.  I just read an opinion piece in the LA Times which posed the question "Should hikers be required to sign a waiver form in National Parks". (

For context of the opining piece: there have been 14 death in Yosemite this year.  I would add that in my local news there were 2 hikers stranded on Angel's Landing (I know there have been a number of fatal falls in recent years) in Zion this past week and every year people get injured and killed in the slot canyons due to flash floods.  I'm sure that you know of other NP's were people have made poor choices on dangerous hikes which have cost them their live.

Personally I think it's a great idea - or at least a good idea for certain hiking/climbing trails.  People don't read the signs and climb over railings, but I think if they have to sign a legal document they might curb their stupidity and/or be more cautious in their activities in the park.

Since I started my career with the National Park Service in 1975 this issue has come up numerous times.  This dialog is often generated by facts such as; in 2008 there were more than 3,500 search and rescue operations in National Parks at a cost of $4.8 million dollars (

It has been my experience that visitors to National Parks have a false sense of security because they believe that when they get in trouble a Park Ranger will miraculously arrive at the scene to rescue them.  This sense of euphoria contributes to poor decision making when facing challenging situations.  The consequences can result in being lost, injured, and in extreme cases death.
In addition to the obvious monetary and time cost of search and rescue operations, there are also the risks taken by responders.  Park employees, cooperating agency personnel, and volunteers often risk serious injury and death to save the lives of victims of their own dangerous decision making.
Exhausted searchers from another all night operation on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Suggestions have been made to have people involved in high risk activities, hiking in dangerous areas of a park, and even persons who are at risk due to violating regulations pay for search and rescue operations resulting from their actions.  It has been further proposed to have individuals planning high risk activities sign legal waivers so the National Park Service would not have to initiate search and rescue operations should they get in trouble.

In my opinion and experience there are several factors that would not make this practice affective.
An individual cannot release the National Park Service from its legal responsibility to protect persons visiting parks.  This is one of the main reasons that Congress and the courts have not been a supporter of the Park Service recovering costs for search, rescue, emergency medical, and investigative costs.

On a practical level;, even if an individual signs a waiver that states the Park Service does not have to come find them if they get lost or injured, their parents, family, and loved ones did not.  Many times emergency operations are initiated at the frantic demanding requests of family members or friends.  I would not want to be the park superintendent that has to answer to a crying mother on the 24 hour news network about why the Park Rangers are not going to save their son or daughter.

Another influence that may prevent such waivers could come from the outdoor equipment and supply industry.  This segment of our economy would not want to reduce the customer interest in higher risk outdoor activities.

When I get a chance I will write on this blog about some of my own experiences with such search and rescue situations.

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