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Why Cornell Should Not Close Fall Creek Gorge

And why the bridge nets are not like the fencing off Fall Creek

The Sun is running a provocative op-ed piece today by a recently minted alumnus who wants the University to close off all access to Fall Creek gorge:

All deaths at Cornell are extremely sad. However, I find the Fall Creek fatalities to be more than just saddening; they are exceedingly frustrating. This frustration stems from the fact that the deaths at Fall Creek are highly avoidable. Cornell needs to take action to prevent these unnecessary and totally preventable fatalities: The University must block off access to Fall Creek gorge.

I have engaged in those risky activities that have caused all this suffering. The recent deaths have forced me to think critically about my past decisions. When taking the risks, I understood the danger of climbing and swimming in the gorge. However, my sense of confidence and self-exceptionalism overrode my sense of fear. My actions were driven by a foolish sense of invincibility.

I, for one, will never swim in the Fall Creek gorge again. However, there are many others who have yet to be deterred by the danger of swimming in the gorge. If the University does not close off the gorge, some of these individuals will die.

It's a thinly laid argument because you could make so many similarly structured arguments that fall apart due to their unreasonable nature of an illegal activity: The University shouldn't allow students to drive because they might die in a traffic accident. The University shouldn't allow students to be sexually active because they may become pregnant or contract a sexually transmitted disease. The University shouldn't allow students (of age) to drink because they may drink themselves to death... New York State should close the Ithaca-area state parks because the gorges and waterfalls can be dangerous. Or the University shouldn't allow students to enjoy a natural area on campus because they may drown.

All are legal activities. All require the individual's discretion to participate in them with caution. Freedom and responsibility, if you will. A Cornell tradition since 1865. Limiting access to the gorges unfairly prohibits legal use of a place with incredible educational, physical, and emotional benefits to students. And we had this exact same discussion three years ago.

Of course, you may ask, how is this any different than putting nets under the bridges to deter suicides, which is something that I've grudgingly come to accept while my colleague Dan Jost maintains have absolutely no purpose, and may in fact cause more suicides? I think the difference is in impact: The nets under the bridges aim to curb an illegal activity without impacting legal use of the bridges, with little negative impact (of course, Dan argues that they can actually cause more suicides). Meanwhile, blocking off access to Fall Creek aims to curb illegal activity (swimming in the gorges, an activity that isn't exactly unsafe for good swimmers at low water levels) while severely impacting legal use of the gorges as well.

On a personal note, I'll most likely be back in Ithaca for Homecoming this September. For the last four years I have been unable to make it down to the gorges due to my ongoing health problems and limited mobility. But if all continues to go well, and the University doesn't decide to restrict access to the gorges, I plan on making my first trek down to the Fall Creek gorge in quite some time.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on August 24, 2011 (#)

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