Hawaii Hikers May Have to Pay for Their Own Rescue If They Disregard Signs

by Jennifer Shea

Hikers in Hawaii could have to pay their own rescue costs, and even additional fines, for ignoring warning signs and hiking on closed trails or private property.

Two new bills making their way through the state Senate would require local governments to seek compensation for search and rescue costs and impose misdemeanor fines, SFGate reports.

Both Bills Would Require Reimbursement of Rescue Costs

Senate Bill 700 would require local governments – and more specifically, county fire departments, which usually conduct search and rescue operations – to seek reimbursement for rescue expenses if the hiker ignored posted signs and left an open trail to hike a closed trail or private land.

Local governments could seek reimbursement from the person themselves, their estate or anyone responsible for their safety.

According to West Hawaii Today, the Department of Land and Natural Resources is in favor of the bill.

Chairperson Suzanne Case submitted testimony saying the department backs “any strategy that will incentivize the general public to stay within authorized managed areas.” While statutory penalties exist, Case said, “they are clearly not a deterrent.”

However, Case also cautioned that the harsh measures could deter hikers from seeking help if they get stranded somewhere.

“While this may be an incentive for people to obey the rules, it could also discourage people from calling for help,” she said in her testimony.

The Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs passed the bill on Feb. 11. If it passes the Judiciary Committee, it goes back to the Senate floor. If it passes there, it goes to the House for a vote.

The second bill, Senate Bill 363, would go one step further. In addition to reimbursement for rescue costs, it would tack on new misdemeanor fines for illegal hiking. But that bill has yet to secure a hearing this session.

Hawaii Has Considered Similar Bills Before

The state House and Senate have seen similar bills before, according to Fox News. Such bills would send a harsh message to tourists. Still, the current bills stand a greater chance of passage given the coronavirus pandemic.  

Tourism comprises nearly one quarter of Hawaii’s economy. The state saw 10.5 million tourists in 2019, per SFGate. But with tourism down thanks to the coronavirus, local governments desperately need the money that they have to spend on rescues, which can cost in the neighborhood of $10,000.

“It’s an issue that has been brought up in the past in a number of ways, especially in times when budgets are thin and resources are limited,” state Sen. Chris Lee told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “It’s a discussion that everybody is interested in having this year.”

The Honolulu Fire Department opposes the bills, because they would discourage people from calling 9-1-1.

Last year, the HFD embarked on 229 total land rescues, 181 of those on steep terrain. Fire departments conducted 223 water rescues, which are not covered by either state Senate bill.