Officials explain decision to close Glen Onoko trail
Glen Onoko Falls’ beauty makes it appealing, but it can also be deadly.
Since 1977 at least eight people have died as a result of accidents at the falls, many more have been injured while walking up or down the falls trail.
Now the path is eroding, making it more dangerous.
Citing safety concerns, the Pennsylvania Game Commission has decided to close the falls trail permanently, effective May 1. The decision was made to protect hikers and the rescuers who respond when they are injured, according to Mike Beahm, Northeast Region land management supervisor for the commission.
“The justification is really to protect human life, reduce injuries, protect first responders. And also, the trail itself has just been deteriorating from overuse,” Beahm said.
The response from hikers has been extremely vocal. A petition to keep the falls open got more than 4.500 signatures in less than a day.
Rescues at Glen Onoko are very common during the hot summer months. When someone is injured at the falls and calls 911, it’s up to volunteer firefighters and ambulances to respond.
Carbon County Emergency Management Agency director Mark Nalesnik says the rescues are a unique challenge for volunteer firefighters.
It takes three hours just to hike the round trip up the falls and down an easier switchback trail nearby. The rescues take even longer because of the time needed to treat and carry the patient.
“It takes upward of 20 people or more to do a serious rescue out of the falls trail,” Nalesnik said. “You can’t have the same 4-5 people doing the entire rescue. You have to cycle people out for their own health and safety.”
Jim Thorpe Fire Chief Vince Yaich said the rescues have become more complicated because of washouts, and it takes two to five hours for firefighters to deploy ropes and conduct a rescue.
“People think we just walk up there, pick somebody up and walk them back down. When you have six guys carrying the Stokes basket it’s time consuming and very hazardous on the first responders,” Yaich said.
He said the most recent rescue in 2018 required 50 firefighters.
The decreasing number of volunteer firefighters both in Carbon County and around Pennsylvania is well-known. Yaich said the demands of a call at Glen Onoko leave other towns open if there is an emergency.
“With manpower the way it is today, when you pull mutual aid you’re a detriment to that town. If they have an emergency they have to pull from another town,” Yaich said.
Lehigh and Lausanne Fire Department has been assisting Jim Thorpe Fire Department with calls for about five years. Chief Tim Rossman said the number of calls has increased. There are only about 12 per year, but sometimes they are called to the falls three times in a single day.
“It usually takes 5-6 fire departments to get enough manpower to successfully extricate someone from up there depending on their location. It’s very time consuming, it’s rough on all the guys of course, and it’s getting worse,” Rossman said.
Rossman said that firefighters asked elected officials to make it safer at the falls; they did not ask them to close it.
Rossman said it’s a shame that the falls has to close to everyone, because of those hikers who ignored the warning signs and underestimate the difficulty of the falls trail.
“These are people who are blatantly not heeding the warning signs, not wearing the proper foot gear. They’re not prepared to go up there,” he said.
Beahm said the game commission has made attempts to improve safety on the falls trail through signs and trail markers. Some signs urge hikers to an easier trail which allows them to see some but not all of the falls.
“We made an effort to better mark the trail and tried to educate people that it is a loop and there’s an easier to climb than to come down versus sitting on your bottom and sliding on the rocks,” Beahm said.
Beahm said simply that the trail has become unsafe for hikers. He pointed out that Pa. Game Commission is not equipped to improve trails because it’s not part of the agency’s purpose. The primary task is creating habitat for game animals and regulating hunting in the state.
“We’re not a recreation agency other than providing recreational fishing and hunting and trapping in our lands. We do have roads that are open to hiking but we don’t manage trails,” Beahm said.
Beahm said the game commission has looked at transferring the falls to Department of Conservation of Natural Resources, which oversees state parks, but that would require approval from state lawmakers.
State Rep. Doyle Heffley said he supports the game commission’s recommendation.
Heffley said he’s heard from first responders over the last two years. There have been at least two meetings between elected officials, firefighters and the game commission to discuss concerns about the falls.
“The game commission is looking at public safety and also looking at the safety at the first responders who have to go and make those calls and made the determination that that one particular trail should be closed.
Heffley said he understands concerns from hikers who want to enjoy the falls. He said hikers will still be able to see some of the falls by utilizing the easier way up
“It is a beautiful area. It is something that many people come from different parts of the state to experience that. I would encourage them to use the other trails that are still open,” he said.
The game commission will post the trail on May 1 with signs explaining the penalties for violators.
Violators who are caught hiking the falls trail could be cited under state law and a magistrate could levy a fine between $100-$200.
He said it would be logical if DCNR took over the falls because its purpose is recreation, but he will listen to the game commission as long as they manage the property.
More recently has heard from the game commission that the trail is deteriorating due to heavy rain.
“They’ve done what they could to try to preserve the trail. They had some Eagle Scouts who have done service projects in trying to do what they can, but they feel the trail at this point is a hazard,” Heffley said.
Heffley agreed that the game commission’s mission is not recreation, adding that they are funded by the sale of hunting licenses. He said it could be logical for the falls to become DCNR property. Lehigh Gorge State Park is immediately adjacent, and DCNR has much more experience maintaining trails.