The Sense in Suing the Forest Service?

The Forest Service is being sued.  The suit was filed on Tuesday December 20th by a family from Washington. The family’s 11 year old daughter was killed on July 31st, 2010 at Big Four Ice Caves in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The family was hiking to the ice caves, a very popular and easy hike, when  a large boulder of ice crushed the little girl. At the time of the accident, the little girl was sitting on the ice fields (off of the designated trail).  There is no cell phone signal at the caves and therefore the family waited more than an hour before help arrived.

Big Four Glacier

The family’s suit says that the Forest Service did not do enough to warn visitors of the dangers of the ice caves. A 27 year old woman was also killed at the Big Four Ice Caves in 1998 when one of the caves collapsed.  Due to the nature of the area (a very popular trail and melting and thawing cycles) signs placed in the area are often stolen or damaged. According to the suit, the day of the little girl’s death, there were no signs warning of the potential for ice falls. The Forest Service will not comment on the suit at this time.

After any injury or death, the Forest Service evaluates how to make an area safer. After the 1998 death, the Forest Service moved the end of the trail away from the caves and also  informed visitors that people leave the trail at their own risk.  After the 2010 death, the Forest Service has installed more signs to warn visitors, added more rocks to try to encourage visitors to stay on the designated trail, and have also begun plans to install an emergency phone at the end of the trail to decrease response time.

The girl’s father claims that had he known of the dangers of the trail he would have never taken his family there and that if the Forest Service had done their job his daughter would still be alive.  The death of this little girl is truly tragic and by no means do I want to diminish the loss that this family has suffered but hindsight is 20/20.  Although ice falls are not infrequent at the Big Four Ice Caves, I believe this was a freak accident that was preventable even with Forest Service signage missing at the trailhead.

Additionally, I do not believe that the family would have turned around at the trailhead even if there were signs warning of ice falls. Every year while working in parks I see hoards of visitors read signs warning of various dangers (rock falls, water falls, etc) and flat our ignore them; they are most likely thinking “that will not happen to me.”  I see visitors hiking off-trail in dangerous areas and exposing themselves to extreme risk around bodies of water (Deaths in Yosemite National Park). Every time someone enters a wildland to recreate they are exposing themselves to some level of risk and their behavior helps determine the exact level of risk. I believe that it is not the job of the federal agencies to provide a completely risk-free environment for their visitors and doing so would be impossible without closing off all public lands.

Suing the Forest Service will not bring anyone back from the dead and short of closing the area, there is not much more that the Forest Service can do to increase safety at Big Four Ice Caves. I understand that popular and easy hiking trails attract urban visitors who may not be as familiar with proper safety precautions in wildlands. However, having a basic knowledge of proper hiking practices could help prevent a similar accident from happening. For example, one of the principles of the Leave No Trace program is to “Plan Ahead and Prepare.” Recreationists should not enter a place blind. Before going on any hike or trip visitors should learn about the area and familiarize themselves with special concerns for that area (such as the presence of falling ice or lack of cell phone signal).   Several websites describing the Big Four Ice Caves hike warn of the risk of avalanches and falling ice. Additionally, basic hiking etiquette indicates that visitors should not leave the designated trail. The designated trail was designed in such a way to increase visitor safety and decrease impacts to the surrounding area. According to news reports about the 2010 accident at Big Four Ice Caves, the family was on the ice fields off of the designated trail when the little girl was crushed. Other visitors who were on the designated trail during the accident were unharmed. Had the family followed proper hiking practices, their daughter may not have been in the way of the boulder.

The loss of a child, especially while on a family outing, is heart-breaking. However, I disagree with the response that this family is taking to the death of their daughter.   The family states that their suit is because they fear another family will lose a loved one if the Forest Service does not take more action. If the suit is honestly not about money and instead about visitor safety it would be in the best interest of the family to focus their efforts, which are currently being wasted on a lawsuit, on encouraging the widespread dissemination of Leave No Trace principles and safe hiking practices. Maintaining safety while recreating is just as much the responsibly of the visitors as it is the federal agencies.

References:

“Family sues over girl’s death at Big Four Ice Caves” – The Seattle Times

“Family sues Federal Government over girl’s death at ice caves” – Heraldnet

“Changes may be made at ice caves” – Heraldnet

Leave No Trace

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