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Who should pay?

On three separate occasions this summer, cliff jumpers leapt from the 65-foot cliff on Eagle Creek. All three injured themselves, requiring the rescue of the Sheriff’s Office and Crag Rats. Who shou

September 24, 2005

You know something is wrong before your first air bubble pops at the surface. A pain in your back. Intense and sharp. Shooting up your spine. It feels like a blade.

With your first breath, you motion to your friends that you are hurt; that you need their help.

But you quickly realize you are a hundred feet down a near-vertical canyon, below a 35-foot waterfall and two miles up a steep trail.

Your friends can’t extricate you from the gorge. Even if they could, they won’t be able to carry you the two miles to the trailhead.

You need to be rescued.

That means a 9-1-1 call and ambulances and stretchers. It means the Sheriff’s Office will have to set up a central command and a handful of Crag Rats will have to stop what they were doing – in the middle of a bite – to drive to the Eagle Creek trailhead, run up the steep trail, descend the canyon wall, wade through the icy pool and figure out how to stabilize you without aggravating the damage you already did to your spine.

This, of course, costs money. Lots of money. About $3,000 to $4,000 for a typical rescue.

And yearly, search and rescue accounts for one percent – $213,000 – of Hood River County’s $25 million budget.

Your cliff jumping injury – along with a plethora of hiking, mountain climbing and other recreational injuries – is straining that budget.

(To say that a rescue responding to an adventure-related injury is straining the budget is highly debatable. In 2003, Dean Runyan and Associates, an economic impact consulting group from Portland, found adventure and travel tourism injected $64 million into Hood River County’s economy for that one year.)

This year alone, the Crag Rats responded to 18 emergency rescue calls, three of which were body recoveries. Another three were for people like you, who scrambled down to the dusty platform beside Punchbowl Falls on Eagle Creek and jumped off.

To relieve municipalities the financial burden of your adventurous decisions, the state of Oregon passed a bill in 1995 that grants counties the autority to charge its victims up to $500 for the rescue.

Charged twice —

So far Hood River County has mailed a bill to a victim twice.

In 1995, a man in his mid-30s was leading a youth group on a hike up Eagle Creek.

The man had scrambled down the trail to the platform off which you just jumped, the 65-foot cliff that drops into the pool below Punchbowl Falls.

He fell to his death.

When blood tests revealed high alcohol content in his system, the Hood River County Sheriff’s Office mailed his family a bill for the body recovery effort.

“I never expected to get anything back,” said Hood River County Sheriff Joe Wampler. “But it was important at that time to set the precedent … This guy had no business leading a bunch of kids into danger.”

Hood River County sent its second rescue bill to a drunken hiker who had stumbled off the Timberline Trail and injured his leg.

He survived. But never paid for the county’s effort to carry him to safety.

So unless you are drunk or totally reckless, the county probably won’t charge you.

First of its kind —

That’s because Rep. Bob Montgomery, the sponsor of Oregon’s statute – ORS 401.590 – tailored it narrowly so that counties could not take advantage of the bank accounts of the people they rescue.

It was the first law of its kind in the nation. And within a few years, other states were drafting their own.

Hawaii, funded and equally burdened by tourism, adopted a law in 1999 with no maximum penalty for the rescued victim.

New Hampshire, home of Mount Washington, the windiest place on earth and statistically the nation’s most dangerous mountain on which to hike, passed a law the same year with a maximum penalty of $10,000.

Idaho followed in 2002 with a $4,000-cap and California became the last of the five states to create such a law allowing municipalities to charge as much as $12,000 for each incident.

So far, Oregon counties and municipalities have recovered rescue costs just once – for reckless boating – out of more than 500 rescues in the last 10 years, according to The American Alpine Club.

Reasonable care —

Perhaps because it was the first, Oregon’s statute is the most conservative. It restricts a municipality from imposing a bill on a rescuee unless he or she violated “applicable laws” or if “reasonable care was not exercised by the individuals …”

“Reasonable care” is primarily defined by the county’s sheriff, which in the world of adventure sports can be somewhat ambiguous.

Does a kayaker use reasonable care, for example, if he paddles over a 50-foot waterfall?

How about a mountain biker who launches over a road gap?

Three times this summer, young males leapt off the 65-foot cliff beside Punchbowl Falls on Eagle Creek.

And three times, Crag Rats and Sheriff’s Office deputies carried them out.

Certainly these guys weren’t using reasonable care.

“I really couldn’t say that the cliff jumpers were acting negligent,” Sheriff Wampler said. “If they were drinking, then we could say they were. And would.”

One action that would make charging those who leap off the Eagle Creek cliff — and get hurt — easier is declaring the act itself illegal.

Off limits? —

The power to do that belongs to the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, which manages the land through which the trail runs.

And it’s a responsibility the Scenic Area’s managers take very seriously.

Just a few times in the history of the Scenic Area, has the federal agency declared a popular spot off-limits.

In 1995 the Scenic Area temporarily closed both plunge pools to wading at Multnomah Falls after a greyhound bus-sized boulder fell into the upper plunge pool, spraying shrapnel everywhere.

The boulder’s splash swallowed the Benson Bridge and brought a wedding party, which was on the bridge for photos, to its knees.

When the Flood of 1996 and an ice flow further demonstrated the area’s instability by destroying trails and a lodge and managers realized they couldn’t prevent the rock fall, they begrudgingly issued the permanent closure.

“At that time, we made some decisions,” said Stan Hinatsu, recreation director for the Scenic Area. “We were noticing quite a bit of resource degradation, and we weren’t sure we wanted to invest money to go in there and rebuild it.”

So, says Hinatsu, closing off Eagle Creek’s Punchbowl Falls cliff probably is not a reality.

“I think we need to look at the context of each site,” he said. “Multnomah Falls is way different than Punchbowl Falls … There’s all kinds of recreational activities that have different levels of risk. We provide the recreational opportunities through trails and mitigate those risks around developed sites … Every adventure sport entails a bit of risk. That’s why people drive out here. It’s exhilarating.

“Besides, we can’t think about every hazard the recreationist will encounter.”

Two months before the Oregon Senate unanimously approved the pay for rescue bill in 1995, three Reed College students journeyed to Mount Hood for a summit attempt.

The weather that March of 1995 turned on them, forcing them to wait the storm out.

While they waited for the weather to clear, search and rescue units scrambled over the mountain for a sign of the students.

They found all three safe and healthy a few days later while they were walking down the mountain.

False perceptions —

Authorities had asserted they could have found them more quickly if the climbers had a communication system, such as a cell phone or a transmitter.

“People in the last few years have been somewhat reckless,” Sen. Randy Leonard, D-Portland had said during the vote on the bill. “This bill applies to those who have neglected to take just the basic precautions.”

Ten years later, authorities in Hood River County are still trying to assess its role in the larger realm of outdoor adventure.

Cliff jumping might seem like a reckless activity. But hiking is what accounts for the lion’s share of emergency responses.

In Oregon, for example, hiking accidents were the most common trigger – 18.5 percent of the time – for an emergency response team in 2003, according to an Oregon Emergency Management report.

Climbing, by contrast, was the seventh most common reason for a rescue, one notch above mushroom picking.

Of all the kayakers to paddle the Class V+ Little White Salmon River, the White Salmon River with 25-foot Big Brother Falls and 16-foot BZ Falls, just two times in the last three years did Skyline Hospital’s emergency room treat somebody for injuries related to kayaking, according to hospital statistics.

“I’ve seen as bad injuries from people playing soccer as any adventure sport,” said Jane Burke, director of Providence Hood River Memorial’s Emergency Room.

Crag Rat Dr. Christopher Van Tilburg and Sheriff Wampler don’t particularly favor the the pay for rescue system.

Both said they’d rather see a system similar to what the major National Parks are doing.

“A lot of big national parks around the nation have a user fee and what that does is if you are going into the Grand Tetons you will either have insurance or you will buy it there,” Wampler said. That’s what I’d like to see happen.

But being’s we’re in the Northwest, we are fairly resistant to that. Here there’s this attitude where it’s there for us to use so we should not have to pay to use it.”

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