How natural landmarks are managed for safety to stay open
By AD CRABLE, LNP newspaper
Mar. 10, 2018
LANCASTER, Pa. (AP) — Despite a tricky and manpower-intensive rescue of a teenager, Wind Cave in southern Lancaster County will not be closed to public use.
Warning signs, however, will be erected at access points to the popular cave, said Phil Wenger, president and CEO of the Lancaster County Conservancy, which will take over ownership of the land containing the cave this year.
"We have no intention of closing that cave at this point," Wenger said.
The Feb. 17 rescue spurred new safety concerns from some local residents. Others expressed indignation at the thought of closing a touchstone natural wonder for generations of local explorers.
The discussion reflects the difficult dance faced by private and public managers of Lancaster County's natural areas as they work to keep natural landmarks open, but safe.
Wind Cave is one of several spots that have posed significant challenges:
— There have been repeated falls from the Chickies Rock precipice along the Susquehanna River despite protective fences and warning signs.
— Accidents and a lawsuit at a popular swimming hole in the gorgeous Pequea Gorge caused the spot to be sealed off from the public.
— And a sublime view of the Susquehanna River on the White Cliffs of Conoy made township officials determined to open it for public enjoyment even though a few visitors act like idiots.
How do you keep Lancaster County's natural landmarks accessible — and uncluttered by signs and fences— yet safe for the public?
In today's litigious society, the threat of liability is always in the background, despite a state law aimed at protecting those who provide public recreation.
Sometimes, when accidents happen repeatedly, landowners feel they have no choice but to limit or bar access. Often, it comes down to how far should one go to protect people from themselves.
Here is how overseers are managing several local landmarks.
After the recent rescue of a teen from Wind Cave in Martic Township — the fifth since 1993 — some have questioned why access to the cave is not restricted or closed.
Many others have argued vehemently against such a move.
In an informal online LNP poll asking whether the cave should be closed, 73 percent of 541 responders said the cave should remain open to the public.
The cave, accessible from the Conestoga Trail System, is very popular with youth groups and beginner spelunking groups from several states.
One of those groups is Youth Opportunities Underground. Founder Allen Maddox of Honey Brook observed, "I prefer to educate people about caves, rather than closing them or making them off-limits, he said.
Reaction from readers of LNP's online stories about the cave rescue has been one-sided, with a strong sentiment that the cave should not be closed. Many were indignant at the very suggestion.
"Life is dangerous. Five rescues in all these years is not a bad stat by any stretch," Stephen Davis, a missionary at Child Evangelism Fellowship, commented on the rescue story. "I'm sure very good lessons were learned all around.
"One of the most dangerous things we can ever attempt to do is to try and make everything safe. Keep it open!"
Sean Broome, another reader, responded with sarcasm: "More people get hurt out in the river during the summer. Guess we'll have to close that off too. The bubble wrap/nanny state types make my blood pressure boil."
The cave is currently on land owned by the Brookfield Renewable utility. But it will be donated this year to the Lancaster County Conservancy, which is in the early stages of developing a management plan with input from caving groups and other stakeholders.
The new warning signs being posted are a joint venture of the conservancy and Brookfield.
"Life is dangerous. Five rescues in all these years is not a bad stat by any stretch."
The conservancy owns some 21 nature preserves in the county, including such popular natural areas as Tucquan Glen, Kelly's Run and House Rock.
Kathie Shirk-Gonick, the conservancy's director of land protection, says the group, in general, likes to minimize impact on these natural features.
"I think the public wants us to keep our natural areas as natural as possible," she said. "When they go for a hike, they want to enjoy the outdoors and not feel like they're in an amusement park."
The conservancy does post warning signs, on its website and at trailheads and parking areas, about certain land features and the levels of difficulty of its hiking trails.
The rocky top and sweeping vista between Marietta and Columbia along the Susquehanna River is one of the county's most visited landmarks.
It's also its most accident prone.
There have been 10 fatal falls since 1981 from the top of the overlook that is owned by Lancaster County, according to LNP archives. Several have been suicides but most occurred when people fell accidentally from abrupt precipices.
The county, after diverse public input, erected a hip-height stone and wood fence at the main overlook in 1989.
But three fatal falls and two with injuries have happened since then. The victims ignored warning signs and went beyond barriers.
Recently, a new danger has arisen at Chickies Rock. With the recent opening of the Northwest Lancaster County River Trail at the base of the rock, there have been incidents in which people on top of the overlook threw rocks or bottles and nearly hit trail users.
As a result, signs warning of the dangers to people below — and the promise of prosecution — have been erected at the overlook.
"To protect people completely from being able to do something, you end up destroying the natural beauty. We've struck a balance and for the most part it's worked."
Technical climbing of the face of Chickies Rock has been remarkably safe, with the only recorded accident in 2012 when two climbers encountered a wasp nest and fell, sustaining minor injuries. Climbing groups monitor the rock face.
Aside from Chickies Rock, the county owns Money Rocks in the eastern part of the county. The overlook also has a railing. There have been no accidents, according to Paul Weiss, director of the Lancaster County Department of Parks and Recreation.
"You can go over a fence and get injured," Weiss said of the efforts made at Chickies Rock and Money Rocks. "To protect people completely from being able to do something, you end up destroying the natural beauty. We've struck a balance and for the most part it's worked."
Here's a case where accidents, abuse and a lawsuit ended up removing a popular natural spot from the public realm.
The rugged section of Pequea Creek in southern Lancaster County includes waterfalls, a narrow chute and waterside boulders.
The spot was popular with water tubers. But partiers and drug users often left it littered with after-hours debris and illegal fire rings. A late-night drowning of an intoxicated man occurred in 1994.
Then, in 1998, after a 4-year-old girl drowned in the turbulent narrows known as Suzy's Hole while tubing with her family, the family sued PPL for negligence.
The lawsuit maintained that the utility, which owns the banks on either side of the creek, did not warn creek users of the dangers of the stream. PPL eventually settled in 2004 for an undisclosed amount of money.
In 2009, a month after a teen girl fell while grabbing for a rope swing, severely injuring herself — and a few days after eight people were cited for trespassing — PPL abruptly put up no-trespassing signs and closed access to the steam bank the length of the gorge.
For generations, cliffs on the edge of the Susquehanna, just north of the Maryland line, had been a summer swimming hole and spot for diving.
But rocks just under the surface presented hidden dangers. Drownings occurred in 1993 and 1994. In 2002, a man diving from the cliffs struck a submerged rock and died from neck and head injuries.
Break-ins of vehicles parked by the swimmers also were rampant.
Norfolk Southern, which owns the riverbank, has long had a strict no-trespassing policy, and many have been cited at the spot by state police through the years — dozens of citations every year, newspaper archives show.
The railroad's reluctance to allow crossing of its railroad tracks up and down the river has caused grumbling by recreation users and municipal officials.
At the railroad's insistence, Manor Township reluctantly assembled a 6-foot-high chain-link fence along its 5-mile Enola Low Grade Line rail-trail. The fence partially obstructs views of the Susquehanna but Norfolk Southern wanted assurances that no one would wander downhill to its active rail line.
White Cliffs of Conoy
When Conoy Township opened the popular river overlook from an old industrial waste pile in 2014, Supervisor Stephen Mohr said he didn't worry about possible falls or lawsuits.
"We decided most people are responsible enough," he said. The township put up signs warning of a drop-off and plastic orange snow fencing near the edge.
It's worked well enough, though some people on occasion have cut through the fence for a closer look, risking a lengthy fall.
"People sometimes have no common sense," Mohr said. "You can't fix stupid sometimes."
Information from: LNP, http://lancasteronline.com