Base jumper Rick Harrison Interview: Simply stated, “A Man Amongst Men”

May of 2009

How do you take one twin brother, retired Federal Attorney, 27 years of B.A.S.E. jumping experience, 59 years of life and sum it up into one interview? Simply stated, “It’s an undertaking of epic proportion”.

Rick Harrison, B.A.S.E. 38, the man who processes your B.A.S.E. number applications, who reads your stories and often responds with a comment in issuing your card, is in the midst of leading a long and productive life. Simply stated, “He has done some shit”.

I have struggled to place into words my perception of “Who Rick Harrison is” and generally speaking I am not one lacking for words. I then enlisted the assistance of two of his friends and discovered the words didn’t come easily for either of them. The problem isn’t that there is a lacking of words to fill a description; the problem is that there are too many words. In asking his friend B.A.S.E. 460 to describe Rick, he replied, “Rick is a mixture of Hunter Thompson, Evel Knievel and Yogi Berra.”

Grant it, there are several B.A.S.E. jumpers whose lives are multi faceted and some who might even risk being diagnosed with multiply personality disorder; but Thompson, Knievel, and Berra? My quandary continued as Rick replied to over 75 questions. I quickly learned this is a man who has something to say and does so in a very detailed mannered, um, very attorney like in nature. He informed me that his responses were “a bit wordy”, but that they should “serve my purposes”. My dilemma then becoming, “How do I edit Rick Harrison? Simply stated, “You don’t”.

What you are about to bear witness to is Rick Harrison “uncut, extended play version, the sit up straight, take note and learn from one of the pioneers of a sport that’s fire burns deep within your own souls. Simply stated, “The man has a passion for life”.

Randy Harrison, his twin brother can lay claim to being Rick’s B.A.S.E. mentor after Randy did his first BASE jump, a solo 2000′ antenna in the winter in Iowa in Nov. 1981. Randy and Rick then did their first building together, a 1000 footer in Houston New Year’s night 1982. Even though Randy was Rick’s first BASE mentor, it was his parents that instilled the “Midwest values” they both needed to achieve their goals inside of B.A.S.E. and out. When their parents divorced, Mom packed up an older brother, the twins and younger sister moving them to Iowa from Texas. Rick is quick to mention that his mother had no prejudices, wonderful common sense and a romantic heart. They saw their father back in Texas during their summer vacations from school, remaining close to him. As for his father, “Pop had strength, an analytical mind, unswerving logic and ethics. He had an unspoken craving for the adrenalin he missed since quitting flying in the Army Air Force, in the 40’s. These two individuals shaped my siblings and me with our personalities, as well as DNA. The adventure part of my dad is where the B.A.S.E. comes in even though our B.A.S.E. jumping scared him. Pop passed on a few years ago.”

Rick dreamed of being an Astronaut as a child and recalls that he always wanted to skydive, admitting that it wasn’t until after he started skydiving training in 1971 that the thought of B.A.S.E entered his mind. Growing up in Iowa City, Iowa, lead Rick to an education, a law degree and his Juris Doctorate at the University of Iowa in 1975.

“From about 8th grade on, I wanted to be either a pilot or an attorney. The Viet Nam war helped me decide to go to law school in 1972 rather than go in the service to learn to fly. I wanted to fly; I didn’t agree with the war and did not want to drop bombs on people so I stayed out of the service. Even though Law School was not a deferment from the draft, I was lucky to have a high draft lottery number so I felt safe in going to law school that the draft would not get high enough to reach me. I think my draft number was in the high 200’s. Don’t get me wrong, if the draft would have gotten high enough to call me up, I would have gone had just had to delay law school until after the war, but I got lucky.”

He then worked in two county attorney offices, the United States Attorney’s Office in Miami, and he retired from the Federal Govt. in 2007 from the Corps of Engineers in Galveston, Texas.

“At first, like many young guys, I was interested in criminal law, but in school, I really liked Constitutional Law and real estate law. Once a young lawyer grows up, you realize that criminal law is sort of a dirty practice. Both sides you deal with, defense attorneys and the prosecutors often use very questionable ethics. I’ve personally known of Federal DEA agents and State of Iowa undercover agents, plant drugs to bust a person they knew was a dealer.

I’ve always valued free time more than money, so the Federal Government seemed a good deal. If you are a private practicing attorney and you care about your clients, there is never enough time in the day. As a government employee, I could schedule vacations and be assured of a descent pension, so for me, the government paid off. Besides, no where can a young lawyer get so much power to actually do some good than from inside the government. Never could I have had the opportunity to lead such a massive pro environmental lawsuit against powerful interests if I had been in private practice. US News and World Report called our Everglades lawsuit the most important environmental lawsuit ever filed by the US Government. I was proud to be a part of it.”

Although B.A.S.E. jumping may not have entered his mind until after years of skydiving experience, once he had a taste for it, there was no stopping he and Randy.

“At first, the idea of getting a B.A.S.E. number wasn’t really my motivation, just having the experience of jumping off of a building and a cliff was what I wanted. We were at a skydiving meet in Z Hills Florida in 1975 and had met Owen Quinn of NY a couple months after he did the first modern B on the World Trade Center. He was a scream. They charged him with 9 misdemeanors and had a shrink interview him for 2 hours to see if he was sane. Her conclusion is that he was sane, just crazy!!

Anyway, Randy and I always used to wonder what a building jump would be like. As 10 year olds, we would sneak up our next door 90′ water tower before mom went back to work at lunch and skip school in the afternoons every Wednesday until we got caught. We’d take sleeping bags up and sleep on the catwalk in junior high. Anyway, even as kids, we had a fascination with parachuting and heights.

Back to the question, after the building jump went so well, we decided to do a local 172′ bridge, and then started towards California for a cliff a couple months later in May or June of 82. By then I was hooked on the rush and wanted to complete the cycle to get a B.A.S.E. number. The numbers were not quite a year old when Randy and I did our first “B”. Once you feel that rush, it’s hard to quit if you are the kind of person who can put logic over fear. Most people simply cannot trust logic enough to B.A.S.E. jump since the natural fear of falling is overwhelming, especially at first.

For us old farts that first learned from years of skydiving, we were likely even more afraid than new BASE jumpers today. We had seen friends die skydiving due to gear issues and a fairly high malfunction rate in the 70’s before square canopies were perfected by the invention of the slider. We were used to having reserves, used to opening by 2000′ unless we intentionally smoked it which some RW workers were prone to do in those days. We knew our gear had limitations but it took awhile for safer gear to come along. We had skydived for 10 years and had a lot of faith in parachutes but both the low altitudes and the objects were really scary at the beginning for us old skydivers.”

As for his career as an officer of the court, his greatest triumph and reward came in winning a suit filed against the State of Florida in protecting the Everglades. Rick counts this litigation success as his “life’s greatest achievement”.

“Being one of the two main litigating attorneys for the US Government when we sued the State of Florida for failing to enforce pollution laws to protect the Everglades from excess nutrients coming from huge sugar farms north of Miami. U.S. News and World Report called it the most important environmental lawsuit ever filed by the U.S. to protect a National Park. The settlement triggered whole reforms to the entire plumbing system from Orlando, Florida down. A 15 billion restoration project is re plumbing S. Florida and creating thousands of acres of marsh to filter the nutrients before the water hits Everglades National Park. It was a very lucky time for me to be one of the main land/environment attorneys at the U.S. Attorney’s Office at that particular time. We had a gutsy U.S. Attorney, even a then President Reagan appointee, who let us instigate this lawsuit and we didn’t even tell the administration we were filing it or it wouldn’t have happened. Anyway, I’ll tell you about the whole environmental conspiracy someday, since it was pretty unique and it was for the right reason.”

In asking Rick about his jump philosophy, “do it because you love it and for no other reason”, I mention that his words regarding the legal suit against the State of Florida as being done for “the right reason”. I asked him how he reconciled being a B.A.S.E jumper who trespassed, breaking and entering, and “doing right”.

“Well, in reality we are only stealing a little altitude and then giving it right back. It is too bad that a lot of objects require trespassing however as long as we do no damage, it’s the price we must pay to experience some objects.

When I use concepts like right or wrong, I really refer to morally right. In law there are two concepts in Latin used to characterize criminal law into Malum in Se versus Malum Prohibita. Wrong in of itself versus wrong because it’s prohibited. Killing, stealing or hurting another person is Malum in se. Most humans, regardless of religion, national origin or political belief agree with this concept. I think it’s where our morals and soul come from. We all understand Malum in se in our own hearts.

B.A.S.E jumping, drinking, using drugs or even gambling and prostitution is really Malum Prohibita so long as we are not doing it in a way to endanger others. Things like B.A.S.E. jumping should be regulated for legitimate concerns, like environment, but not as a criminal act. The implications in America of a criminal conviction, sometimes even a misdemeanor can be much more devastating than deserved from simply making a B.A.S.E. jump.”

Rick’s least favorite thing about B.A.S.E. jumping, is what else, but legal restrictions. “They make us jump at late hours which are a pain in the ass, you risk dealing with cops and the older I get the more I hate that.” Taking advantage of Rick’s legal background as well as his work as legal counsel to The Alliance for Backcountry Parachutists I posed the question of “Is the biggest objection by the National Park Service, the cost, time and resources for rescues? Or are they truly trying to protect the land?”

Your question assumes only 2 reasons, both legitimate, why the National Park Service should have concerns over B.A.S.E. jumping in National Park units, but in reality, the actions of many National Park Service rangers cannot be explained by these 2 concerns of the agency. “This is a very sensitive issue since we of course want to be seen as responsible, but I’ve been working with the National Park Service for many years in my legal career buying land for them or protecting National Park Service land from pollution. I have also stayed up on many of the jumper-ranger incidents as well. It’s my belief that legal B.A.S.E. jumping on the order of back country hiking would lead to safer jumps, less damage to the natural resources since jumpers could stay on established trails without fear of arrest, and would cost the National Park Service less money since their Rangers wouldn’t be spending time and effort stalking and chasing B.A.S.E jumpers.

In reality, once it went sour in Yosemite, due in part to some unruly skydivers who showed up and jumped without permits in the experiment tried by National Park Service back in 1980 the National Park Service responded with more vengeance than was justified and it became an “us or them” mentality on both parts. The National Park Service decided to limit jumping to I think it was 14 permits per day, but this was not publicized much around the skydiving community. By the time word got out that El Capitan would be available for jumping, jumpers came from all over spending both time and money to get there only to be told they couldn’t get a permit.

Remember, in those days, there was no real indicator that B.A.S.E. could be so objectionable especially since Yosemite above all parks other than perhaps Yellowstone, already had huge crowds and messes. The jumping did very little to add to that problem. They allowed anyone without a permit to go climb a wall with no training or equipment. They allowed aid climbing by placing bolts in the rock which causes damage. They allowed hang gliding off of Glacier Point, but B.A.S.E. was new and seemed pretty radical to the “establishment” at the time.

It was the spectators who gathered in the meadow that the National Park Service used as one excuse to stop jumping as all the spectators trampled down the meadow. Well, that is sort of throwing the baby out with the bath water. The National Park Service could clearly have regulated the crowds with taped off areas and signs, but chose not to do so. It is not beyond belief that the NPS knew very well that jumpers showing up and being told they could not get a permit, would result in jumpers going ahead and jumping. Skydiving was a bit more of a rowdy sport in the 60’s and 70’s than it is today. Jumpers showed up in good faith and found out that unless you were in the know in advance to get one of the few permits being issued each day to jump you had to wait. The inevitable happened and the National Park Service stopped the jumping.

Most folks do not realize that National Park Service Rangers, at least the law enforcement rangers, go to the Federal law enforcement schools just like some law enforcement agencies. Most resource agencies, like Fish and Wildlife, or Corps of Engineer Rangers, or even Forest Service Rangers do not carry guns and are not that mentally geared for law enforcement. There have been many, many instances of overzealous enforcement against B.A.S.E. jumpers. Some people, when placed in positions of authority can tend to abuse it. Much of the overzealous treatment of B.A.S.E. jumpers can be more closely linked with the simple fact that we are defying the Ranger’s authority rather than having any serious impact on the land or their resources.

One jumper was chased by Yosemite rangers to a flooded river and in his efforts to escape, the jumper drowned. Others have had cars and vans ransacked for drugs etc. or roughed up and intimidated jumpers to rat on others who may have escaped. The National Park Service when they began buying land for the scenic river program at New River, West Virginia, went out of their way to move acquisition of the land directly below the bridge up to priority 1 acquisition, and in fact condemned the land to gain possession in order to be able to try to limit or shut down B.A.S.E. jumping at New River. The National Park Service did not like the fact that we were using the success at Bridge Day to show them why they should reconsider the ban at Yosemite.

They used to allow it at Canyon de Chelly in NE Arizona on Navajo lands but then “encouraged” the tribal council to no longer allow it. At New River one year, the authorities were as invasive as to bring drug sniffing dogs onto the bridge to put a real chill on the jumpers and just in general created a real police atmosphere. This story can be repeated all over.

Nowadays that the old guard in the National Park Service are retiring and the entire concept of B.A.S.E. is becoming a little more commonplace, tensions seem to be lessening some. It is ironic that the National Park Service, under the same Department of Interior as BLM, refuses to consider allowing B.A.S.E. jumps off of the tallest and safest cliffs in the U.S while the BLM has no regulations prohibiting jumping from the BLM cliffs that are much shorter and more dangerous. The National Parks are for Americans to use as recreation responsibly. B.A.S.E. can and has been done responsibly in many places on earth including New River, Perrine, Canyon de Chelly, Norway, Italy, etc.

One word on resources is that the National Park Service actually spends as much on resources trying to prohibit and chase B.A.S.E jumpers as they would if they adopted more of a BLM approach. Moreover, making Yosemite, Black Canyon, and other desirable places off limits creates a worse situation. By driving it underground and by confiscating gear for at least a year and longer, it forces more jumps at night and jumpers use their garbage gear to jump for fear of losing their best rigs. Rangers are often secretly posted on top of objects all night to catch B.A.S.E. jumpers when they could be much better used stopping real crime in Yosemite and other units.

Granted, B.A.S.E. is unusual to the average person, but fact is, if allowed properly, with strict enforcement of pollution and littering laws, B.A.S.E should be allowed in places where it can be done with relative safety. If the National Park Service is worried about resource damage from spectators at El Cap, allow it at Half Dome or Black Canyon where there are no public roads for the average tourist to go watch and the normal urban BASE jumper who is not into long hard back country hikes is not likely to go.

The Alliance for Backcountry Parachutists is a group with this goal in mind to open up some National Park Service sites to real back country parachutists that know the ethics of hiking in the back country and not creating damage or litter.

Sorry to be so long winded, but as a lawyer that has worked as a prosecutor in 2 County Attorney’s offices and one U.S. Attorney’s Office, I’ve seen too many examples of the unhealthy kind of police mentality which can lead to an authoritarian or what is referred to in criminology as the “crime control model” of law enforcement. This often leads to overzealous enforcement. It is understandable given the difficulty of some law enforcement jobs but B.A.S.E. jumping simply does not warrant this kind of enforcement philosophy. It leads us all to the “us and them” mentality which only breeds resentment on both sides.

Hopefully, as B.A.S.E. gets more popular and accepted, it can be more acceptable in National Park Service units especially since, if it’s done right, B.A.S.E jumping has less environmental impact than rock climbing or even hiking and camping on the land. Much less impact than even the mules and horses allowed on trails in some park units.”

To be continued…In the next part Rick discusses, Law Enforcement, Drugs & Alcohol, First Jump courses, Videos, Carl Boenish and more.

All rights reserved. No republication of this material, in any form or medium, is permitted without express permission of the author. Copyright 2009

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