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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, September 26, 2002

Sacred Falls ruling a warning for state

A state judge's ruling in a lawsuit stemming from the 1999 rockslide at Sacred Falls State Park is a sobering warning to all who would promote "eco-tourism" or "adventure tourism" in the Islands.

Circuit Judge Dexter Del Rosario ruled that the state was legally at fault for the injuries and deaths that occurred that day when a rockslide tumbled down on hikers and picnickers. Eight people were killed and 50 injured.

At first blush, the ruling would appear to be a severe blow to our attempts to promote Hawai'i as a place where the natural environment is there for the enjoyment of all.

But a more detailed look at Del Rosario's ruling suggests that the particular set of facts in the Sacred Falls case means it may not apply in other cases where people are injured or killed while enjoying nature. It does suggest, however, that when we promote enjoyment of our natural areas, we must do it with a clear statement of the dangers involved.

In the Sacred Falls case, the state actively promoted the park as an attraction for novice hikers and children. This was despite the fact that the state knew there was a particular potential for rockfalls in the area.

In addition, the judge found that warning signs and information were either inadequate or nonexistent.

Since these particular cases have a way to go before they are finally resolved (and it is likely that there will be appeals), it is hard to say now what kind of precedent has been set. Attorney General Earl Anzai said yesterday that many state parks may have to close if the ruling is upheld.

In the meantime, however, this ruling tells us that if we continue to promote enjoyment and exploration of Hawai'i's natural beauty (and we should), that promotion should come with fair and sufficient warning of the potential dangers involved.