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Closure of Sacred Falls does not deter hikers

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  • Honolulu Firefighters rescued a man in his 20s

Despite numerous signs warning of penalties for trespassing, 92 people have been issued citations at Sacred Falls State Park since the beginning of 2012, including the two that were issued to lost hikers Wednesday, according to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

The park was closed indefinitely after a horrific Mother’s Day rockfall in 1999 that killed eight and injured 33 others.

But the hikers keep coming.

"Some people like forbidden fruit," said Randy Ching, vice chairman of the Sierra Club Hawaii Chapter, Oahu Group.

Ching, who noted he hadn’t hiked Sacred Falls recently, is among those who believe the park, which has a "spectacular" waterfall, should be opened to the public. He said the appropriate warnings should be given, including telling people, "There’s a good chance you could die if you don’t pay attention."

He added: "What the state is trying to avoid is being sued. They’re terrified. It’s a lot easier to close it up, but really, the trails belong to everyone."

Deborah Ward, DLNR spokeswoman, said the decision to close the park was made shortly after the 1999 accident and was based on recommendations from geologists and professionals hired by the department.

There are no plans to reopen the area, she said.

Since 1970 there have been 22 deaths, dozens of injuries and scores who have had to be rescued at Sacred Falls due to rock slides or flash floods.

In 2003, the state agreed to pay $8.56 million to the families of the rockfall victims, who claimed warning signs were inadequate at the time of the rockfall in 1999.

On Wednesday morning, firefighters rescued a man in his 20s after he had become separated from three other men and spent the night on the Sacred Falls trail.

Citations are petty misdemeanors that are considered criminal offenses punishable by up to 30 days in jail and fines of up to $2,500.

In April 2012, after firefighters rescued a woman who hurt her leg while hiking at Sacred Falls, state officials cited her and six companions for illegally entering the park. Two months later, DLNR cited an 18-year-old visitor and issued warnings to two teenage boys hiking with her.

Richard McMahon, a veteran hiker and author, said it’s time DLNR reopened Sacred Falls and let the hiker decide what risk to face.

"The option should be open to the individual," he said.

McMahon said Sacred Falls isn’t the only outdoor area in Hawaii where one can get into trouble.

"I don’t see anyone out there closing beaches because someone drowned," he said.

Sacred Falls isn’t one of David Caldwell’s favorite hikes, but he says the park should be open. Caldwell, a photographer and author of "Adventurer’s Hawaii," said the state should manage the area, closing the park only during rainy weather and other times when the risk is high. He said the state should require everyone who hikes there to sign a waiver acknowledging the risk.

"It’s like a lot of places in Hawaii where there’s a narrow valley and a waterfall. There’s a potential for damage, depending on the conditions. If you go there, you definitely have to use caution and beware," Caldwell said.

Former Brigham Young University-Hawaii student David Jones recalled hiking to the falls with a group from his Hauula house in 2006 despite knowing it was illegal. As soon as the group jumped into the waterfall pool, he said, some "decent-size rocks" crashed down from the cliffs above.

"I’m sure rocks fall all the time," Jones said. "The rocks that fell by us were large enough to kill us, especially at the speed they were falling."

But despite the warnings and the potential for legal penalties, the hikers still come. There are dozens of videos of Sacred Falls hikes on YouTube. One poster does offer this warning, however:

"While at the falls on this calm day, which it hadn’t rained in a week, we still saw at least three rocks fall, all very close to us. This hike is NOT SAFE and … I now understand the need for its closure."

Sierra Club hike leader John Shimogawa said he hadn’t hiked Sacred Falls in decades but he remembers it as a fabulous hike.

But while he enjoyed the hike, he realizes the place is dangerous. Shimogawa said he understands the liability issue and the need to forbid hikers.

"No one likes to get hurt," he said. "Hiking should be fun."

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