Since 2016, four people have died at Palouse Falls, and 17 others have been injured badly enough to require helicopter rescue.
Those numbers should be haunting enough for action to be taken at Palouse Falls State Park to reduce the deaths and injuries. But what can be done?
It’s a perplexing question. If access to the stunning beauty of the falls is restricted, few will continue to venture to the park (about 90 miles from Walla Walla, or a less-than-two-hour drive).
For that reason, others believe the answer is in educating people about the dangers.
While education is likely a key to saving lives, it won’t alone solve this very real problem.
Naches resident Ruth Drollinger, the mother of the most recent victim of the falls, calls Palouse Falls Park “a death trap. It seduces people into going near the edge of the cliffs or into the water.”
That’s hard to dispute. The temptation to get closer to the edge than is reasonably safe should be removed. The state has an obligation to try to save people from themselves.
This can be attempted by establishing rules to keep people from climbing the steep cliffs and getting too close to the edges.
However, personal responsibility can’t — and shouldn’t — be ignored. Rules, or even laws, don’t automatically result in all using good judgment.
Virginia Painter, Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission spokeswoman, told the Yakima Herald-Republic there are official trails to three viewpoints offering different perspectives on the falls. But, she said, there is also a network of unauthorized trails carved out by the footsteps of people who hike out to the cliffs above the falls or down to the pool at the base of the falls — areas that are officially out of bounds at the park.
“Some (of the trails) go across steep angles on the downhill side, on loose rock, scree and shale,” Painter said. “Even an experienced hiker can slip on it (and fall).”
Painter said there have been people hiking out to the falls in flip-flops with children in their arms.
The Herald-Republic reports state parks officials are considering plans to extend the fencing to make it more difficult to get to the undeveloped area, as well as looking at signage with more emphatic messages about the dangers that can result from going out of bounds.
That’s a good start. And perhaps fines could be imposed to those who go “our of bounds.”
Four deaths in two years is a clear sign the state would be wise to focus attention on making Palouse Falls State Park safer.