Two days ago, I’d never heard of Senate Bill 1007. But online, there were rumblings of “a big issue that seems to be largely under the radar right now,” as Reddit user bwolfe put it.
SB 1007 would expand current law to further protect the state from liability in the case of accidents or injuries on public lands or on “voluntary trails” created by hikers and climbers.
Largely ignored by the media, this bill certainly was on the radar of Hawaii’s hiking and rock climbing communities. An online petition, hosted on Change.org, has more than 1,700 signatures. On Facebook, a number of Hawaii outdoors clubs have cut-and-paste language from the petition, urging its members to sign it, and more urgently, submit testimony.
Hundreds of people did. So much testimony has come in that the House Judiciary Committee clerks say they can’t count it all yet. It likely will take a few more days for the testimony to be uploaded to the Hawaii Legislature’s website because of the volume.
On Thursday, dozens of people packed into a small hearing room at the State Capitol for a hearing on the bill, some in full hiking and climbing gear. House Judiciary Vice Chairwoman Sharon Har struggled to keep things moving quickly.
The bill has ramifications beyond the niche community that is championing it. There are potentially millions of dollars in taxpayer money on the line.
And in 2012, relatives of two hikers who died at Kauai’s Opaekaa Falls in 2006 won a $15.4 million settlement, $5.4 million of which came from state coffers, and the remaining amount funded by the state’s excess insurance carrier. Elizabeth Ann Brem of California and her cousin Paula Andrea Gonzalez Ramirez of Colombia hiked on a “voluntary trail” created by residents to visit the falls. That trail has since been shut down.
The public continues to create “voluntary trails” and the state is looking to protect itself from liability.
“We’re not asking for complete immunity,” state Attorney General David Louie told lawmakers at the hearing. “We’re asking for a reasonable protection.”
Daniel Quinn, state parks administrator, also testified in favor of the bill.
“There are trails that are shut down,” Quinn said. “Without it, we won’t have a clear definition of what is our duty to warn. … Otherwise we could just have signs all over the place.”
And it’s impossible to fence off or post signs on every dangerous area in Hawaii and the 33,857 acres within the state’s park system.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie‘s administration got some support from a number of hikers and rock climbers.
“This is a good start toward preventing our natural resources from unnecessary closures,” said hiker Michael Bishop.
Another woman said she would move away from Hawaii if her weekend rock-climbing getaways were curbed in any way.
Mike Solis, who owns a mountain bike company and hosts several races throughout the state, said Hawaii’s outdoors community largely understands the risks they take.
“There’s always a little bit of liability as we put these races on,” Solis testified. “We understand that our actions are our own. I don’t expect the state to be liable for my actions. I am happy to share in that liability or responsibility.”
Thursday’s debate was largely one-sided. One of the people people to oppose the bill was Robert Toyofuku of the Hawaii Association for Justice, a group of attorneys that came out against a similar proposal last year.
“I think this is going to create another problem because now the task force … has to try to discover non-natural conditions and warn of non-natural conditions,” Toyofuku said, to eye rolls and groans.
Some people seemed to fear that not passing this bill would result in more trail closures. But that’s not necessarily the case. The state doesn’t arbitrarily close down trails. And passing this legislation also doesn’t necessarily mean places like Sacred Falls will open back up.
Still, the bill was passed out of committee. It’s still got a bit more of a climb, but thanks to social media and online activism, Hawaii’s climbers will be hooked in on the way up.
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