October 7, 2013

Cornell Sees Decrease in Gorge-Related Deaths

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Over the past few years, the University has attempted to combat the temptation of cool gorge waters on a hot summer day through education about the dangers of the gorges.

The efforts seem to have been successful. Only one gorge-related death has been reported since President David Skorton’s approval of the Gorge Safety Report of December 2011; in contrast, three incidents that were reported in 2011, according to Todd Bittner, director of natural areas and chair of the Gorge Safety Committee.

The Gorge Safety Report of 2011 established an ongoing plan to implement new gorge safety measures in order to add to the community’s enjoyment and awareness of the gorges, according to Bittner.

Bittner said the four main elements of the report are infrastructural rehabilitation, enforcement of the safety guidelines, alternatives to unsafe swimming areas and education.

Since the report’s release, Bittner said improvements to the physical condition of the gorge trails have been achieved by upgrading the quality and quantity of the lighting surrounding the gorge trails to improve their visibility at night.

In addition, wood railings have been replaced by more stable metal fences and many of the staircases, once made of wood treated lumber, have been restored with concrete, which is a more durable material, according to Bittner.

Various spots along the trails have also been redeveloped into safe areas designed for people to take in gorge views in a responsible way. Signs explaining the area’s history, along with a space for an outdoor classroom or temporary art exhibit, have been added, Bittner said.

These destination sites, according to Bittner, offer an example of how the new safety measures complement the overall gorge experience.

“These are the iconic spots of the University; we didn’t want that to be diminished,” Bittner said.

The Gorge Safety Committee has also expanded eduation regarding gorge safety, with 15,000 brochures now dispersed annually to students across campus explaining gorge safety issues, Bittner said.

Also, in August, the committee launched the website gorgesafety.cornell.edu to increase gorge knowledge. The website provides an outline of gorge safety regulations, options for safe hiking trails and updates on gorge conditions, as well as explaining safe alternatives to swimming in the gorges — such as the free shuttle buses at the beginning of the school year to the safe swimming area in Buttermilk Falls State Park.

The Gorge Steward Program –– which consists of a team of trained gorge trail experts who patrol the gorges and conduct guided tours from mid-May to September –– is another measure the University has enacted to ensure gorge safety.

Jamie Sternlicht ’14, one of three gorge stewards from this past summer who trained with Cornell Plantations staff said the program is very well-rounded in its scope.

“It was intended to benefit safety, but it doesn’t just help there. It is a benefit in itself that people are becoming more informed about the gorges, especially because they play such a key role in Cornell history,” Sternlicht said.

Sarah Kennedy, a Cornell employee who is also a summer gorge steward, echoed this reflection on the benefits of the program.

“In addition to asking folks to abide by the gorge regulations, stewards also talk about the geological development of the gorges; we talk about the native people of Ithaca and how the University developed the trails systems,” Kennedy said in an email. “Stewards also try to keep the trails clean and we report on any unsafe conditions. Overall, we try to take a holistic approach to using the gorges in a safe and responsible manner.”

Bittner added that a significant enhancement to gorge safety enforcement came in 2012 when the Judicial Code of Conduct was amended so students would receive Judicial Action for swimming in the gorges.

“I’m happy to say there has been a significant decrease in inappropriate gorge use,” Bittner said.