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NWA EDITORIAL: A terrible accident highlights the dangers sometimes overlooked by people eager to witness the Ozarks’ beauty

There’s danger in those Ozark hills by NWA Democrat-Gazette | May 14, 2022 at 1:00 a.m.

What’s the point?

A recent tragedy in the Ozarks demonstrates the dangers that lurk amid the beauty and a need for those venturing into the woods to take serious precautions.

When it comes to Arkansas's rugged areas, like the Ozark National Forest and Buffalo National River, it's easy to be drawn in by the beauty.

By the lure of nature.

By the trees, the waterfalls and the streams.

By the chance to see wildlife.

They are places people who appreciate the outdoors want to be. And sometimes, there's an aspect to it people don't always adequately recognize and prepare for.

It's the danger.

Natives of this state and people from elsewhere find adventure and respite from the "civilized" life in the mountains of northern Arkansas, discovering something special on those winding trails, those craggy rocks, those exhilarating bluffs and those quiet, breezy moments under an inspirational tree canopy.

But the danger is there, too. Always.

We're reminded so vividly of all that with events like the one that happened last Saturday.

According to Newton County Sheriff Glenn Wheeler, a 46-year-old Springfield, Mo., man was hiking with a group near a rock formation known as the Eye of the Needle. It's an area covered in natural attractions that call out to those yearning for a taste of the state's more rugged beauty, including rock formations that astound, shallow caves and tough climbs. A National Park Service spokesman described getting to the area as a "backcountry bushwhack."

The visitor from Missouri fell about 20 feet during the outing. Despite CPR by other hikers and then rescuers, the man didn't survive.

As tragic as that is, it's not unheard of in the Arkansas backwoods. So many of us enjoy hiking and floating rivers, but there's great risk involved. Even experience doesn't shield anyone from possible injury.

But what's most disturbing about what happened during that hike are the details provided by Sheriff Wheeler. The hike was led by an "illegal and unlicensed guide out of Bentonville," Wheeler said.

"This man brings people to the Buffalo River and other parts of Newton County and takes them into some of the most rugged terrain in the Ozarks," the sheriff said. "It appears they don't always know what they're getting into."

Wheeler described another recent incident involving the purported guide in which a hiker was injured and the guide "left her in the woods."

It's bad enough when casual hikers out for a day of fun get into trouble and require emergency assistance. But when someone is charging people for guide services and taking them into rugged areas he and they are unprepared for, that's adding risk upon risk.

If people charge a fee for guide services in National Park Service areas, the guide must have been issued a permit by the federal agency.

Officials haven't released the name of the man they accuse of providing guide services without a permit. An investigation is under way by the sheriff's office and by the National Park Service. Clearly, Sheriff Wheeler is serious about prosecution. And why shouldn't he be? Every rescue demands a response that puts even more people at risk of injury or death. Thankfully, people training to be wilderness responders and will show up when needed, but it's best for everyone when those services aren't necessary.

"If state charges are a better fit, I'll be happy to save a bed in my jail for this guy," Wheeler said. The areas he is taking these people to are no joke. ... Now a family in Missouri is mourning the loss of a loved one due to his actions."

We appreciate the sheriff's indignation. He's not saying people shouldn't enjoy Arkansas' beautiful natural areas. But he's adamant someone who charges a fee, who paints himself as something of an expert guide, has a responsibility to the people who entrust their safety to him.

Having a permitted guide doesn't inoculate anyone from danger, but knowing that you're hiking with someone unpermitted, whose knowledge of backcountry practices, first aid, wilderness navigation and other outdoor skills is questionable, would that change how you approach an outing? If you're smart, it would.

And anyone posing as a guide and taking money from unsuspecting outdoor enthusiasts should be held to a standard. We don't know enough about state law or National Park Service regulations to know whether such standards exist, but it sure seems this outcome suggests they should.

By all means, enjoy everything Arkansas has to offer, but do it with preparedness and an abundance of caution.

Let the hiker beware.

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Print Headline: Don’t fall for it

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