Catherine Toth Fox: Hikers Who Take Illegal Risks Should Pay The Consequences - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for the rescue and recovery of someone who’s blatantly broken the law.

“Do you know where the swing is?”

It wasn’t the kind of question you’d expect to get while you’re hiking in the back of Moanalua Valley. But there it was — and I knew exactly what this female hiker, armed with a GoPro, was talking about.

This was back in 2016, and the swing in question was attached to a makeshift structure at the top of Haiku Stairs, otherwise known as Stairway to Heaven. The trail, which consists of 3,922 steps to the 2,800-foot summit of Puu Keahiakahoe overlooking Haiku Valley, has been closed since 1987.

People dodged security guards and trespassed through private backyards to get to the trailhead, often just to capture the same images they had seen on social media. And, that year, the swing — a jerry-rigged contraption hung on two rusted poles by metal chains — was all the rage. (It has since been taken down.)

I had been hiking on the totally legal, state-run Kulanaʻahane Trail, also known as Moanalua Middle Ridge Trail, which, after a steep climb to the summit, can connect to the top of Haiku Stairs. It’s how a lot of hikers have been accessing the illegal trail.

The Haiku Stairs hike is closed to the public. This photo was taken during a trek with the Friends of Haiku Stairs, which had approval to do maintenance work. (Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2013)

I’m not going to lie: I’ve always wanted to climb the stairs and witness the breathtaking views I’ve only seen on social media. Thought about it, for sure, but never done it. And not because I’m not fit or experienced enough. Because, simply, it’s illegal.

Pay The Price For Ignoring Warning Signs

And it’s obvious it’s illegal. There are posted signs, warnings online, even lists it as a closed trail, stating “Do not attempt this hike.”

But there are other trails on the island — some with no names, some that start in backyards, some that are well-worn paths branching from legal ones — that I’m less clear about.

And herein lies the problem.

Right now Senate Bill 786 has crossed over to the House. This bill proposes giving government entities the ability to seek reimbursement for search and rescue expenses for anyone who requires assistance after “ignoring warning signs, leaving a hiking trail to enter a prohibited area, or hiking on a trail closed to the public.” This wouldn’t affect distressed or injured law-abiding hikers.

So that injured hiker who had to be rescued by helicopter on Monday afternoon from Haiku Stairs? Yeah, he would presumably have to pay at least half the cost of the rescue — and hopefully whatever fines he and his two friends incurred for trespassing.

But this trail is clearly marked as a closed trail. We shouldn’t have to pay for the rescue and recovery of someone who’s blatantly broken the law.

I get that accidents happen. I remember walking down a state-run trail behind a guy who had broken his ankle; his two friends were practically carrying him back to his car. Hiking can be dangerous. Heck, shopping at Target can be dangerous. You know the risks.

But I don’t think giving people who are brazen enough to break the law to hike on a trail a free ride sends the right message. You break your leg on the Makapuu Lighthouse Trail? Yes, get rescued. You’re stuck at Puu Manamana, or Couching Lion, which is clearly marked as closed? Sure, get rescued — but pay for it.

I understand the concerns both the Honolulu police and fire departments have about this bill — and why they oppose it. They worry people may not notify first responders for help and that could create a worse situation. That said, the option for help is still there; they’ll just have to pay for it. It’s like a fine or penality, and I think that’s fair.

Other States Have Similar Legislation

Hawaii isn’t the only state to introduce proposed legislation like this. Idaho, New Hampshire, Maine, Oregon, South Dakota and Vermont have similar laws allowing them to bill people for the cost of rescues in certain situations.

Last year in New Hampshire, two hikers pleaded guilty to charges of reckless conduct and agreed to pay fines after a search-and-rescue team had to pluck them from an off-trail area in the White Mountains. The hikers were deemed to have no knowledge of the area or trail and were not wearing proper footwear.

What Hawaii needs to do — especially since visitors flock here to explore the outdoors — is make sure that illegal trails are marked, that travel and hiking sites aren’t promoting unsafe hikes and that everyone knows the risks involved and what it may cost if they need to be rescued.

It’s not easy to find information on hiking safety on the state’s official travel site. You have to click on “planning,” then “safety” before you get to it. And there doesn’t seem to be any information about trail safety or closed and off-limit hikes on its Na Ala Hele Trail and Access Program.

The AllTrails platform, where lots of hikers of varying skill and experience get their trail information, lists every Oahu hike you can think of, even trails that are on private property. And while these trails are noted as closed or illegal, it allows users to post directions and helpful hints. Just last month a hiker wrote this about Haiku Stairs: “Cool hike minus the possible trouble.” And last week, another hiker posted this about Crouching Lion: “Says it is closed, but not enforced.”

Similar legislation has been introduced in previous sessions but has not been successful. It’s time to pass this bill into law.

Enforcement is challenging. And chasing down reimbursement may be tricky, too. But the message needs to be sent: Hike at your own risk, but pay — literally — the consequences, too.

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About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

The real problem with this article, and so many like it, is that they assume that hikes are closed because they cannot be hiked safely. In fact, most closed hikes on the island are closed because the state is too worried about liability and completely unconcerned about providing public access to public land. Virtually every closed hike can be safely hiked. The real tragedy here is that so many of the state's best hikes are closed because the state can't be bother to figure out parking, maintain trails, or manage access. The problem is not thrill-seeking visitors with access to social media, it's indiffirent bureaucrats at state agencies and an uninformed and, in this case, hostile public. As many other commenters have pointed out, a significant percentage of EMS and fire response are already in response to people doing some kind of illegal activity, speeding, reckless driving, drunk driving, drugs, etc. It is especially perverse to single out hiking for special condemnation and treatment, because while it may be technically illegal in some cases because the state sucks, it is actually a great thing to be doing and should be encourage.

Jesse_Palmer · 6 months ago

I get it, its one of those subjects that grab the headlines and gets people thinking about things, but in reality it's probably peanuts in the grand scheme. Doesn't make it right that we should continue to bail people out of stupid things they do, but where do you draw the line? We bail people out of stupid things like drinking and driving when they crash. We still send Fire and EMR. What about charging those that call 911, when they simply have indigestion, or can't get off the toilet. Should we charge for that too, especially when they refuse a ride to the ER?And if we really want to talk about numbers that would make a difference, what about all those "unhealthy" folks that have high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, basically all the high risk COVID folks. Should we refuse medical treatment, services and ICU for them? I recall many of the vaccinated swearing that same thing to the unvaccinated, at the peak of pandemic fear? What about now, how much have attitudes changed and can the shoe fit the other foot? Great topic which you have only scratched the surface.

wailani1961 · 6 months ago

Of all the things to be concerned about our state government squandering tax dollars on, hiker rescue has got to be pretty close to dead last on the list in terms of total dollar amount "wasted" as well as the severity of the "problem" .The cost of saving people’s lives, stuck on remote mountaintops with broken bones, is a drop in the bucket compared to the numerous egregious examples of wasted money spent by our inept state government. The people that are hyper-focused on this issue in particular either a) have far too much time on their hands or b) a very limited imagination.But I tend to think it’s both.

Nogrumbles · 6 months ago

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