Teen who died at falls identified as Joseph Meram, 16, of El Cajon
Sheriff says falls will stay closed until ways are found to protect public safety
By Miriam Raftery
July 8, 2011 (San Diego’s East County) – A family outing turned to tragedy when Joseph Meram, 16, hiked ahead of his relatives and wandered onto the wrong trail with his cousin over the weekend. The teen plummeted over an 80-foot cliff into a swimming hole at the base of Cedar Creek Falls.
His death has prompted closure of the falls indefinitely--and debate over the role of government in balancing accessibility vs. safety on public lands. Now Sheriff Bill Gore speaks out on the tragedy, which occurred soon after the U.S. Forest Service improved a trail to make the site more accessible—a move Sheriff Bill Gore says was well-intentioned, but resulted in serious consequences.
Speaking today at an East County Chamber of Commerce breakfast at Mission Trails Regional Park, Sheriff Gore fielded a question from East County Magazine's editor. Noting that the Sheriff’s helicopters have performed many recent rescues at the falls, ECM asked the Sheriff his views on the U.S. Forest Service’s actions. Sheriff Gore shared his perspectives on the issues and potential solutions.
“The Forest Service was trying to do the right thing and improve the trail,” Sheriff Gore said, “but they created a gigantic problem.” The improved accessibility has resulted in hundreds of cars parked in the Ramona Country Estates neighborhood and attracted teens with coolers to hike down, drink beer and party at the falls—once a destination mainly for serious outdoor enthusiasts in peak physical condition.
While accidents, injuries and deaths have occurred through the years at Cedar Creek Falls and other local waterfalls, the new trail has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of rescues at Cedar Creek due primarily to dehydration, but also injuries from falling or jumping off tall rocks into the water. (The USFS has now banned alcohol, jumping, diving, and rock climbing at all area waterfalls.)
“We’ve probably spent $80,000 to $100,000 in helicopter rescues at Cedar Creek Falls recently,” Sheriff Gore said. He noted that the Forest Service has not had the manpower to patrol the trail or station a ranger at the popular swimming hole. Asked whether the Sheriff might provide assistance to the Forest Service with enforcement efforts to save money on rescues that could be avoided, Gore replied, “We have no enforcement jurisdiction. “
But later he told ECM that one solution might be for the Forest Service to deputize Sheriff’s deputies to have authority on federal lands in the Cleveland National Forest, where the falls are located.
ECM asked the Sheriff whether steps such as better signage, a railing and/or water fountains might be solutions to help prevent harm to visitors. Such items would be the responsibility of the Forest Service, he noted, since the falls are on federal forest lands.
“We’re willing to work with them,” he said of the Forest Service, “and we’re working on coming up with a solution. But Sheriff Gore concluded, “The falls will remain closed until we come up with one, until we have a joint operation for policing down at the falls and providing parking enforcement.”