More Bad News Regarding Access to Taiwan’s Mountain Landscapes

In Uncategorized by Richard9 Comments

The wonderful Stegasaurus Ridge trail is now closed,, and hiker5s that attempt to walk it from the main trailhead on the northeast coast road could face jail time.

The wonderful Stegosaurus Ridge trail is now closed, and hikers that attempt to start it from the main trailhead on the northeast coast road could face jail time or a huge fine.

UPDATE September 21st: In true Taiwanese fashion, a resourceful local hiking group has already found a way round the ominous sign that blocks entry to the Stegosaurus Ridge trail, with a new trail skirting around the perimeter of the disused copper plant. It starts a little further down the coast road at the 80.2 kilometer marker. A post on the group’s Facebook page (in Chinese but with a sketch map of the new route, which joins the original route behind the compound) is up here:  https://www.facebook.com/paul.lee.79827/media_set?set=a.1378880355474393.1073742720.100000573244989&type=3&hc_location=ufi

Yesterday I learned that the trailhead of a very popular Taipei-area trail, which I (and many others, no doubt) regard as one of the finest day hikes in Taiwan, has now been officially closed, and with warnings of jail-time, no less, for those caught trespassing. It’s just the latest event in an ongoing, but seemingly intensifying attempt to curb or limit access to Taiwan’s beautiful countryside, or to ‘tame’ it with the intention of making it ‘safer’ and more ‘accessible’.

From now on, hikers illegally entering the Stegosaurus Ridge Trail could face a fine of up to NT$500,000 (or up to a year in jail). Compare that with drunk drivers, who, for a first offence, face a maximum penalty (in a 2013 amendment to the law) of only NT$200,000. 

The Taiwanese authorities have a history of meddling with hiking routes they feel to be unsuitable for general consumption. Well over a decade ago, the beauty of one of the Taipei area’s most popular hiking routes, Huangdidian (皇帝殿) was compromised  when the rock of its famous knife-edges was chiseled away to  make the way along their top easier and, supposedly, safer. Iron bars and rope handrails followed shortly after, and these artificial additions now adversely affect the beauty of the ridge. Taipei area’s other great knife-edge ridge walk, Wuliaojian (五寮尖) later suffered a similar fate, with steps and footholds being hewn out of the natural blades of rock, and a long handrail installed on the main knife-edge ridge. Here, at least, it could be argued that the additions are a necessary safety feature on such an exposed ridge; however the physical chiselling away of the natural rock has of course permanently defaced the natural scenery.

The new, 'improved' Huangdidian

The new, ‘improved’ Huangdidian

A more recent victim of meddling by the authorities is another classic Taipei walk, the Sandiaoling Waterfall Trail (三貂嶺瀑步步道). In an attempt to open the trail to the less able-bodied, a year or two back a bulky flight of metal stairs (which a number of friends have described as ‘ugly’) was installed beside Sandiaoling Waterfall itself, replacing the far more compact (and much more natural-looking) wooden rope ladder that once scaled the rock face there.

This log rope-ladder that for many years climbed the rock face beside Sandiaoling Waterfall has now been replaced by an unsightly flight of metal stairs

This log rope-ladder that for many years climbed the rock face beside Sandiaoling Waterfall has now been replaced by a bulky flight of metal stairs

Signs like this one (at the the start of the Datun Stream Old Trail in Yangmingshan) have been a common sight for hikers in Taiwan for decades.

Signs like this one (at the the start of the Datun Stream Old Trail in Yangmingshan) have been a common sight for hikers in Taiwan for decades.

The sign blocking the trailhead of the Stegosaurus Ridge walk (which was put up very recently) is unusually harsh in its promise of p[unishment to offenders. The sign says the area is polluted and anyone that enters is liable to a fine of up to NT$500,000 (US$16,000) or up to a year in prison.

The sign (which was put up very recently) blocking the trailhead of the Stegosaurus Ridge walk  is remarkably harsh in its promise of punishment to offenders. The sign says the area is polluted and anyone who enters is liable to a fine of up to NT$500,000 (US$16,000) or up to a year in prison. (Thanks to Jean for the photo)

Stegosaurus Ridge is just the latest of a whole series of trails where hikers are either warned to steer clear of, or are officially banned outright from entering. In most cases hikers have until now simply ignored the signs, especially since the trails beyond (including Stegosaurus Ridge) offer no appreciable risks to any reasonably experienced hiker. The threat of a huge fine or up to a year in jail, however, is a startling new development that I haven’t seen on any other closed trail in Taiwan, and seems to indicate a hardening of the local authorities towards hikers. It might cause even those who have long been accustomed to ignoring these familiar, scaremongering signs, to think again before enjoying the glories of Steg Ridge.

The ‘official’ reason for the closure of the Stegosaurus Ridge trailhead doesn’t really make sense. The sign states pollution of the water and soil inside as the reason for the ban on entry. However, the water in the famous Golden Waterfall (黃金瀑布) nearby is tainted with arsenic and other highly toxic substances, yet upon my last visit, access to it was open to everyone. The waterfall lies right beside a busy road just below the hugely popular former mining village of Jinguashi, with no safety barrier of any kind between the road’s edge and the contaminated water. The real reason for the closure is more likely due to the death of a hiker on the nearby Banping Cliff trail in early June. But even then closing the whole route still makes sense. A number of people have been killed by falling rocks while simply driving along the Taroko Gorge road; similar accidents have happened along the Suhua Highway, yet it’s extremely doubtful that the authorities would ever permanently close either route to public vehicles.

The water of the Golden Waterfall at Jinguashi is contaminated bu several toxic substances including arsenic, yet on my last visit there was no barrier to stop visitors walking right down to the water's edge.

The Golden Waterfall at Jinguashi is contaminated by several toxic substances, including arsenic, that are present in ground water flowing out of old mine entrances upstream, yet on my last visit there was no barrier to stop visitors walking right down to the water’s edge.

Hikers in Taiwan have for decades had to decide whether or not to heed the ‘no entry’ signs posted at the trailheads of many popular routes.In the past it’s generally not been a problem. The Stegosaurus Ridge trail closure, however, may well be ushering in a new era where authorities are taking a much more pro-active role in dictating just where hikers can walk, and where they are most definitely not welcome.

Comments

  1. I personally don’t have US$16,000 in my bank account. What would happen if I got caught trespassing on that trail, and can’t afford to pay the fine?

    1. Author

      Jail time of course! Seriously though, in the past, warnings have rarely been enforced and some people in the business that I’ve talked to think this will continue. We’ll have to see what happens!

  2. P

    1. Author

      Why should the authorities have to pay rescue fees? If we get lost or injured in the mountains we should pay our own rescue fees – it’s as simple as that. Hikers need to take responsibility for themselves. Legislation that places the burden of rescue costs firmly on the person who needs rescuing shouldn’t be difficult.
      But while on the subject of taxing public resources, the government might want to look at a myriad other much larger but entirely preventable burdens on the system. Poor diet, lack of exercise, poor road safety and pure force of habit (those who go to the hospital every time they catch cold, for instance), are all driving many citizens to needlessly visit their local hospitals and clinics. The costs incurred from easily preventable accidents and other health problems that occur on the island’s roads and in its homes vastly outweighs the amount spent on rescuing the relatively small number hikers of hikers that get lost or injured in the hills. The government should start focusing on that rather than singling out one activity that promotes physical and mental health, usually for almost no monetary cost.

  3. Guess I won’t be going on that hike anytime soon. Personal responsibility is important when hiking. There’s no need to add safety to nature.

  4. This is a bizarre development. Is it an actual law though or just an extreme warning sign? In many cases it seems authorities are putting up serious sounding signs without legislation backing them up. Despite listing who sanctioned the sign, there is no legal code printed on it, as you typically see when there is a law. (Such as ecologically protected areas). That doesn’t mean it has no backing, but it warrants further investigation.

    There are some areas which are legally protected to that degree, such as the Bilu (比魯) hot spring area, but they tend to be much, much more remote. The main cause of concern is invasive plant species, because it’s a several day trip and human feces might contain viable seeds. For specially designated “no human interference” areas these steep fines make sense, but I don’t see how that would apply in this situation. My first instinct is that it’s just a scary sign. (Don’t go in and get arrested based on my instincts please).

    As a side note, I don’t think attempting to “open the trail to the less able-bodied” is a very sinister plot. Replacing a ladder with a stair case is pretty benign, even if you think it’s ugly. These trails should be accessible to as many people as possible (which is really what your advocating here by railing against restrictions) and the end result is that paths will look more like paths. There’s no way around that. There is a difference between landscaping paths (like the path to Shuangliu Waterfal (雙流瀑布步道) and making paths more accessible by adding stairs, ropes, and railings. It may be less-enjoyable for you now, but it’s able to be enjoyed by a lot of people who were not able to enjoy it before at all.

    I’m often criticized online for posting detailed descriptions to places people feel should be “secret” (enjoyed only by them and the people they tell), and people who think increased traffic will “ruin” the place for “drown in it garbage”. I refute all of these claims though. Public places are to be enjoyed by everyone and the more people who go and enjoy a place, the more people who are emotionally connected to that place. The more people who protect place, and the more people who take care of that place. Eventually though, if people keep going to those places, there will be a permanent trail, even if no one builds one.

    For the able-bodied and the adventurous there will always be a trail that we have never been on, or a trail that none have ever been on, that we can go to. There’s a staircase in Sandiaoling. Tens of thousands of people visit and love that trail. They’re trying to shut-down Stegosaurus Ridge. Do you think anyone would ever dare try to close Sandiaoling Trail?

    1. Author

      I think you’re probably right about the sign at the trailhead of Stegosaurus Ridge being just an attempt to scare people off, Asher! In my view the authorities in Taiwan are far too quick to put up these signs, which is perhaps why most people simply ignore them, because there’s often no obvious reason why they should be there in the first place. People ignore them and then, in the few instances when the signs warn of a real and present risk – a particular, very dangerous route I know not far from Taroko Gorge, with just a small advisory sign, is a clear example!) they’re useless in warning of the real danger that, for once, lies ahead. You make an excellent point about strict ecological reserves such as Bilu and Yuanyang Lake in Yilan, established to keep the environment as pristine and undisturbed by humankind as possible, although regarding the introduction of invasive alien plant species I suppose birds and other animals could just as easily introduce invasive plant seeds in their droppings or on their fur or feathers.
      You’re perfectly right in your opinion that the countryside should belong to everyone. The big difference in our views though (and I don’t think we’re going to agree on this, after previous discussions!) is I think that to feel a connection with nature’s really special places, you really do need to work for it. I don’t feel any special connection with, say Beitou Hot Spring Park, even though it’s a place that’s almost unique on the whole world, with the presence of the extremely rare (and radioactive) Hokutolite deposited in the bed of the stream by the hot spring waters flowing down from above. It (and Hell Valley above) must have been an awesome sight when the only way to get there was a long trek through aborigine-inhabited forests though! Wufengqi Waterfall in Yilan, which now has very easy, surfaced paths leading up to all three levels, is a wonderful place too, but again the concrete paths and handrails make it feel more like a park rather than the natural wonder that it is. Of course, the upper fall would have been extremely hard to reach before the path was engineered, but maybe that would have been better. We don’t have the right to place nature at our beck and call!! My point is that we shouldn’t be pulling nature down to our level simply for our convenience – the commonly-held idea that everywhere should be accessible to the largest possible proportion of people strikes me as putting humanity over nature. The wonder of nature should and indeed must be accessible to all humanity, but always (basically) on its own terms. All thinking people, I hope, would prefer to see a tiger in the wild rather than in a zoo, so why do we feel a need to ‘tame’ all those beautiful places, just so that people can reach them without any effort?
      Of course the very act of having a trail at all is ‘taming’ nature to an extent, but then most of us would have never seen a lion or hippo in the wild if it weren’t for Africa’s national parks. A small amount of controlled development (and dirt trails, unless overuse deeply erodes them, are relatively minimal in their impact on the natural scene) is arguably a necessary evil. The problem comes when authorities try to make it EASY and CONVENIENT to reach these places. Shifen Waterfall is a perfect example of a magnificent place permanently spoilt by a ill-advised desire to make it conveniently accessible to everyone – all that concrete isn’t going away for the next few thousand years, and that beautiful place is ruined. The Sandiaoling Waterfall trail may only have an iron stairway at the moment (what was wrong with the original log rope ladder, anyway?), but I’m fairly confident this is just the latest stage of a continuing process; concrete paths may well follow to make the whole route convenient for the masses, and by then we’ll have we’ll have pulled magnificent nature down to the level of our lazy, convenience-obsessed natures, then that classic hike will become another Shifen Waterfall – another pleasant excursion, but very far from an authentically natural experience, and one that, once all that concrete and iron is introduced, will never really be natural again in the future.

      1. Signs: Putting up a sign that mimics a law without an actual law skips the democratic process. It may be that the process is too bureaucratic and a sign is just a simpler way to do it, but that’s a different issue. These signs are confusing and misleading.

        Paths: I see your point. Interfere with nature little as possible. I don’t think anyone would disagree with that, but I think people have different definitions of what “as little as possible” means. Personally I love just a foot-beaten path through the forest. Those cause erosion all the time so it’s hard for me to think of that as the least damaging method, even if it is initially. Laying plastic netting down and with sandbags and covering them with dirt seem to hold up longer but I’m sure they have issues as well. I’m sure there have been some great studies about what is really the least damaging path, I’d love to read about one sometime. I wouldn’t be surprised if the findings were less than obvious though. I’m sure in many cases a metal staircase is an ideal solution to prevent erosion, even if it’s the one that looks the least natural. (not specific to the ladder/stairs situation)

        I don’t see anything wrong with the ladder though. Or the stairs, really. They could have been done better but at least they’re removable so someone else can improve upon the concept later, so at least it was done badly the right way. (Which can’t be said of the chiseled rock stairs, which is an example of the wrong way)

        Shifen is pretty awful, but I’m sure I’d love it if I was allowed to jump off it. The only justification for not allowing swimming there is that they just want to deal with it. It’s just another lawless sign though, there is no special designation. What really keeps me out of the water are social norms. The shopping mall there disgusts me, but what bothers me most are the restrictions. Of course, there is a difference between happening upon a place later, and seeing it once was. For example, I’ve never actually seen the wooden ladder in person, and that probably affects my perspective on it. I’ve never been on it and have no emotional attachment to it, I’m not sad that it’s gone, although it looked really fun.

        I completely agree with you that these places get degraded by the paths, but I think they also get protected by the paths as well. It’s a delicate balance, I’m not advocating bulldozing down the forest to protect it from loggers. I actually avoid paths which I think are too “nice” because it makes me feel like I’m in a tree museum. But I also know where are a million other barely-follow-able paths out there though, so I go on those instead, My philosophy (which could be unsubstantiated, I’ve never seen any studies on it) is that getting as more people out in nature is better. My hypothesis is that societies with a higher prevalence of internal ecotourism do a better job at conservation. Because of this, I’m willing to sweat the small stuff for the bigger picture.

  5. Thank you for this info. I was planning to do this hike when I visit in a few weeks. Looked so good from your photos. Will look for a replacement.

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