On a family camping trip in American Fork Canyon on Father's Day 2007, Sam Ives, 11, zipped into his sleeping bag after warning his family he was going to wake them early for a breakfast he would make himself.
About 11:30 p.m., his parents heard a scuffle and Sam screaming. By the light of their flashlights, they found an almost surgical slash in his tent wall, but no sign of their son. Searchers later found Sam's mutilated body a quarter mile from camp—he had been mauled and killed by a 300-pound black bear.
The family brought suit against the U.S. Forest Service and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, arguing officials should have warned them an aggressive bear had attacked campers 12 hours earlier. Arguing that Sam had a granola bar and a soda in the tent, wildlife officials maintained they cannot be held responsible for risks that are a "natural condition" of the outdoors, but a federal judge found the Forest Service negligent and ordered it pay the family $2 million. A parallel lawsuit against the state was appealed last fall, and a decision is pending in the Supreme Court.
This bear attack is only one of several recent examples of outdoors-lovers taking outback mishaps to court. Though predictable in a litigious society, this trend leaves many Westerners, particularly those in the outfitting and ski business, wondering what our once self-reliant pioneer culture has come to.
After all, it's the natural beauty—and the element of risk—that draws backpackers, hikers, rock climbers, backcountry skiers, rafters and even car campers to the wilds. A trip into nature is an opportunity to leave behind our digitized, hyper-regulated and too-often banal daily existence. Nature tests, sometimes to the limit, our wits, bodies and multipurpose tools. Going into the wild is a rare chance for an adrenaline rush.
So when the wild world behaves badly—an unexpected mountain storm threatens hypothermia, a mountain ledge eludes our bike tire, a campfire s'more burns someone's lips or a black bear enters stage left—do we sue the government for failing to protect us?
Chris Servheen, grizzly recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has years of experience in educating humans in co-existing with bears. Missoula-based Servheen is, frankly, fed up with Americans unwilling to accept the risks of venturing into the backcountry.
Bear attacks, rock and tree falls and other mishaps in the wilds can be tragic, Servheen says, but, "We can't guarantee safety, and people shouldn't expect us to. Too many people have given up the idea of personal responsibility."
A hundred years ago, Servheen says, no one would have thought of suing over a bear attack or a tree falling on them (that actually happened). "Now, somehow, the government is responsible. When a person is injured by a wild animal, lawyers seek to pin blame on someone else."
Servheen and others argue there's already an option for those who want risk-free adventure: Disney World.