Kurt Jensen
Three weeks ago, as evening dimmed on Oregon's eastern highlands, a camp counselor tried to subdue a 15-year-old boy. For the past several days, the Scappoose teenager had been forced to carry a forty-pound pack and hoof it across high desert as part of a program intended to correct his delinquent behavior. Once again, he was acting out.Mixing traditional couch therapy with concepts of self-reliance, Bend-based Obsidian Trails is one of four so-called "wilderness therapy" programs in the state. That night, when the teenager did not back down, an Obsidian counselor restrained him. Fifteen minutes later, the boy was dead.

In the wake of last month's fatality, the four wilderness therapy programs that operate around the state have received unwanted attention, and may be netted for the first time with government regulations.

Program directors for the organizations agree that regulations are a necessary precaution against future tragedies. But they worry that such regulations, done incorrectly, could curtail the effectiveness of the programs, which rely on a certain amount of creativity and unmitigated freedom in dealing with at-risk youth.

Even before last month's death--the first of its kind in Oregon--the wilderness programs were intermittently mediating regulations amongst themselves. But this coming winter, these discussions will be formalized, when state representative Ben Westlund (R-Bend) submits a bill establishing minimum safety regulations and an oversight board to regulate the state's programs.

"Milosevic or Saddam Hussein could come over here and start one of these schools," pointed out Rep. Westlund. He quickly added that he has confidence with existing programs, but is concerned that there are virtually no prerequisite qualifications. Westlund hopes that his bill will provide minimum staff training.

With two of the most well-respected programs in the country located in Oregon--the Catherine Freer Wilderness Therapy, in Albany, and Treks, in Bend--the state is considered a leader for the still-emerging industry of wilderness therapy. Any legislation here promises to set a tone for the rest of the country.

Six years ago, after four at-risk teens died while attending outdoor programs in Utah, the state legislature there hobbled together a set of rules for operating outings. Critics have decried those regulations as a failure, claiming they don't account for the difficulty in monitoring programs that work with a population of teenagers who can be unpredictable, violent and in need of restraint.

Unlike Utah's regulations, Westlund's bill takes the unique step to establish an oversight board consisting of directors from the state's programs. It is a model based on the Construction Contractors Board, in which members govern their own industry. Moreover, the regulations primarily focus on the training of staff members.

"It comes down to the people who you have doing it," said Paul Smith, program director of Catherine Freer. Smith points to the extensive training and experience of his staff as the backbone of his organization. In 12 years of operation, Catherine Freer has maintained a clear record. Even so, Smith concedes that regulations only will set a bar for entrance into the profession, like the ones attorneys and physicians must pass. After that, Smith admits that it is impossible to guarantee safety.

After the death of the teenage boy in late September, a 22-year-old counselor for Obsidian Trails faces charges for homicide. In addition, the Bureau of Land Management suspended the program's permits.