About this time every year, as the weather gets nice and people decide to head out and climb, I hear reports that Cleveland Metroparks is stepping up enforcement of their climbing permits. Although they probably catch a few people that completely disregard the system, most of the offenses tend to fall to people that just forgot to renew their permits. This is usually when I realize I am one of those people and scramble to update mine so that I can enjoy my weekend climbing without the threat of having my gear confiscated…and just to clear up any confusion, this applies to those of us that prefer boulders, as well as those that migrate towards the cliff faces.
Since the NEOCC was started in 2009, we have been advocating for the removal of Cleveland Metroparks climbing permit system. Anyone that has gone through the permit process knows there are two parts. The first is the signature of a waiver. This waiver looks like the typical one you sign at any climbing gym. “I will not hold liable,” “I will not sue,” yada yada. In court, these aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on and thanks to Ohio’s Recreational Use Statute, they’re completely unnecessary. Since 1963 this statute has provided immunity to private landowners who permit recreational users to enter and use their land free of charge. In 1975 it was extended to public agencies (previously protected by sovereign immunity) and decades of legal precedent have been set in cases reaching all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court. In the 1984 case Marrek vs. Cleveland Metroparks Board of Commissioners et al., Sally Marrek attempted to sue the park board when she was struck in the face by another sledder’s foot, while she herself was sledding. The courts ruled that the park was not liable.
The second part of the permit process is proof of $300,000 personal liability insurance. This requirement affords the park no additional protection and they are not under the pretense that it does. Rather, they feel that it should be required so that you, the climber, is protected. Unofficially, they also believe that it keeps a certain less desirable and perhaps less responsible type from applying. This is ludicrous because by their very definition, those that are reckless and irresponsible would not apply for a permit even if they could afford the insurance. “Afford” may be the key word here. The requirement more likely just keeps students, renters and low-income users at bay. Hardly the inclusiveness that one would expect. Taking a step back to the “it protects you” comment, whether or not it is a public agencies place to dictate this requirement is an issue well played out in the current Obamacare debate. Setting that debate aside, do we need to be protected? Based on the 2004 case Holbrook vs. McCracken the answer is clearly ”no.” Holbrook was injured when he fell from an indoor rock wall while McCracken was belaying, and the new rope slipped through her hands. Because there was an “inherent risk” associated with rock climbing, and McCracken did not act “intentionally or recklessly,” the court ruled in her favor.
So where does all of this leave us? Based on two separate legal analyses we received, I believe we have a clear case of a park system following a “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it,” methodology. They are under the false pretense that their permit system is somehow protecting them, rather than Ohio’s laws. Some might say, “better safe than sorry.” Is there really any harm in this methodology? The harm comes when other agencies, such as Metroparks Serving Summit County (MPSSC) look to Cleveland Metroparks as an example. If you think this is hyperbole, know that during our discussions about allowing climbing in Gorge Metropark, MPSSC stated that $1,000,000 personal liability insurance would be required to climb. This permit system is unprecedented in the nation and even within Cleveland’s own park system. It is not applied to any other recreational activity and if left unquestioned, will continue to marginalize climbing based on its “extreme” image. An image based more on media portrayal than fact.