December 1, 2011

Skorton Endorses Recommendations for Gorge Safety

Print More

Following the accidental gorge deaths of three students this summer, President David Skorton endorsed a report on Thursday from the Gorge Safety Steering Committee calling for new infrastructure, increased educational outreach and a student patrol group to improve safety in the gorges.

“I am directing the administration to identify the most urgent projects and implement them as soon as practical. Furthermore, I am asking that the remaining recommendations be included as part of the campus’ ongoing consideration of safety programs and activities for appropriate prioritization and funding,” Skorton said in a statement after endorsing the report.

The recommendations aimed at reducing dangerous conditions will be implemented first, said Mary Opperman, the vice president of Human Resources.

“We are looking right now at the recommendations that are most important for life safety,” she said.

Opperman said “high-priority” recommendations include new and preexisting infrastructure projects such as installing signs and fences and finishing the ongoing reconstruction of the Cascadilla Gorge Trail, according to the report.

The report emphasizes the necessity of completing the gorge trail reconstruction project. Started in December 2008, the project includes a recently installed large iron gate at the entrance to the trail to improve gorge safety.

The gate will offer a safeguard during the winter from these hazards when it is closed for the winter months, said Todd Bittner, director of Cornell Plantations. It will block off access to the trail and will be reopened in the spring, he said.

“Conditions in the winter require the gorge trail to be closed for safety as large amounts of ice builds up and makes the trail surface hazardous,” Bittner said.  “Additionally, because Cascadilla Gorge has its trails located on the bottom of the gorge, it is subject to periodic flooding and falling rock hazards.”

The report also recommends augmenting the safe and responsible use of the creek-side area of Fall Creek Gorge, two overlook locations near University Avenue and a stone staircase under the pedestrian suspension bridge of the gorge.

“What we’re looking to do is make them more accessible — not the waterways, but the gorge areas,” Opperman said.

Other high priority suggestions include creating a map to display the safe and dangerous areas and the creation of a gorge safety video to be shown at swim tests and online and training.

Production of the video is already underway, according to Anisha Chopra ’13, a member of the Gorge Safety and Stewardship Working Group and head of the Student Assembly Safety Task Force.

“[The S.A. Safety Task Force] just created our script. We’re going to be making a video that will hopefully be shown to [people who take] the swim test,” she said.

The Safety Task Force is also looking to help improve Cornell’s gorge safety website and to create inclement weather reports to warn students when gorge conditions are especially dangerous, Chopra said.

“We’d like to make the gorge safety page a go-to location for students before they begin to explore the gorges,” Chopra said. “It doesn’t mean just going in, it encompasses going down and around the area … We want to inform people how to experience the gorges safely because they are such an integral and unique part of our campus.”

The report also calls for creating a Gorge Stewards Program, in which a group of students would be trained to patrol the gorges and “increase student understanding of safe enjoyment of the gorges.” These students will not serve in an enforcement capacity, according to the report.

The high priority section also recommends amending the Campus Code of Conduct to “prohibit unsafe use of the gorges, without the unintended consequence of prohibiting activities that are safe.”

“We clarified what is enforceable by what rules and regulations apply … and which of the law enforcement agencies are responsible for each,” Opperman said.

The new rules will include the creation of an “educational amnesty” program for first time violators. Opperman said these provisions would be similar to the BASICS class for alcohol violations.

The University has been working toward improving gorge safety for the last several years, Opperman said, but the three accidental deaths over the summer prompted an enhanced focus on the effort.

“There [has] been work on gorge safety through a standing committee for years. We came together in a really focused way this fall after the tragedies,” she said. “The planning and the ideas that you see there have been worked on for many years.”

Original Author: Harrison Okin