Newspaper Chides Park Over Tragedy
Editor's Note: The following editorial appeared in the Record Searchlight, Redding, Calif.
When the family of 9-year-old Tommy Botell sued the National Park Service after a rock wall collapsed and killed the Red Bluff boy on the Lassen Peak Trail in 2009, it provoked widespread skepticism.
For all the terrible heartbreak, after all, a wilderness trail up the side of a volcano holds inherent dangers. A wrongful-death suit against the government struck the most cynical as an attempt to cash in on tragedy.
But as the Botell family’s attorneys have peeled back the layers of misconduct at Lassen Volcanic National Park, it’s plain how their pain at the loss of their son was compounded by entirely justified outrage at park officials’ dismissal of a known hazard before Tommy’s death and, especially, the cover-up afterward.
This isn’t just lawyerly bombast or the pained family’s accusations. A federal magistrate’s findings released last week detail an appalling web of wrongdoing and recommended that the U.S. District Court judge ultimately overseeing the case impose sanctions and find the park negligent in Tommy’s death.
Lassen officials destroyed evidence — both the remains of the wall itself and documents whose disappearance the magistrate called “highly suspicious” though not proven legally relevant to the case. (Of course, it’s hard to prove anything about what shredded documents said — that’s the point.)
They disregarded National Park Service policy requiring that, after a death, the relevant area be secured pending a full investigation, and that the agency convene a Board of Inquiry.
They interfered with both an official National Park Service investigation and the inquiries of the Botells’ private attorney.
And contradictions in Superintendent Darlene Koontz’s testimony, the magistrate found, “would seem to show that Koontz lied under penalty of perjury” about the role she might have played in stalling an internal National Park Service probe.
Add it up, and you don’t see a picture of park leaders forthrightly facing a problem and working to ensure, to the best of their ability, that it doesn’t happen again (though, in fairness, the multi-year Peak Trail overhaul’s planning was complete the next winter, and construction began in 2010). Instead, it’s a rush to cover their backsides.
And the ruling and other court papers paint a clear picture of the reason: The hazards of the decades-old rock walls on the Peak Trail had been documented and studied for some time. Park officials knew they had a problem, and they’d even begun working on plans to fix it. They didn’t act fast enough, though, and the result was a 9-year-old hiker’s death.
That’s the most horrifying possible outcome. And yet the existence of old walls and the maintenance backlog are not faults that necessarily belong on Lassen managers’ shoulders.
The National Park Service’s conservation mission makes it subject to some of the strictest federal environmental protections anywhere. It takes exhaustive study before anyone can turn a shovelful of dirt. And the parks system nationally faces a huge backlog of maintenance — roughly $10 billion in deferred upkeep.
Combine a cumbersome-by-design bureaucracy with chronically short funding, and delay will become an agency’s default mode. And that means, all but inevitably, some known hazards will go unaddressed.
The national parks are treasures set aside for all time and are managed under a public microscope. Even so, their stewards still need the authority to make reasonably prompt decisions, especially when the public’s safety is involved, without having their actions tied up in court. The parks also need budgets adequate to carry out their mission and serve the public.
But before any of that would do a lick of good, the parks need people with integrity at the top. After reading last week’s ruling, it’s hard to see how anyone would think that’s the case at Lassen.