The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Three dead in national park system accidents as shutdown wears on

Trump administration officials decided to leave the scenic parks open even as the Interior Department has halted most of its operations — a departure from previous extended shutdowns

Three days after most of the federal workforce was furloughed on Dec. 21, a 14-year-old girl fell 700 feet to her death at the Horseshoe Bend Overlook, part of the Glen Canyon Recreation Area in Arizona. The following day, Christmas, a man died at Yosemite National Park in California after suffering a head injury in a fall. On Dec. 27, a woman was killed by a falling tree at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the borders of North Carolina and Tennessee.

The deaths follow a decision by Trump administration officials to leave the scenic — but sometimes deadly — parks open even as the Interior Department has halted most of its operations. During previous extended shutdowns, the National Park Service barred public access to many of its sites across the nation to substantially decrease the risk of park damage and visitor injury.

National Park Service spokesman Jeremy Barnum said in an interview that a total of seven people have died in national parks since the shutdown began. Officials believe that four of the deaths were suicides, he added.

An average of six people die each week in the park system, he said, a figure that includes accidents like drownings, falls, and motor vehicle crashes, natural causes such as heart attacks and suicides. Drowning, automobile accidents, falls and suicides are among the top causes of death at national parks.

“Throughout the year, the National Park System offers a wide range of visitor experiences in unique landscapes with potential hazards that may exist at parks across the nation,” Barnum said in an email. “Visitors can reduce their risk of injury if they plan ahead and prepare properly, select the most appropriate activity that matches their skill set and experience, seek information before they arrive at the park about hazards and environmental conditions, follow rules and regulations and use sound judgement while recreating.”

In 1995 and 2013, respectively, the Clinton and Obama administrations made the decision to close the parks altogether. Officials concluded that keeping the parks open would jeopardize public safety and the parks’ integrity, but the closures also became a political cudgel for Democrats because they exemplified one of the most popular aspects of federal operations that had ground to a halt.

People are streaming into national parks to find trash cans overflowing and restrooms locked. Volunteers are stepping in to stop conditions from deteriorating. (Video: Luis Velarde, Juca Favela/The Washington Post)

In January 2018, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney and then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke made the decision to keep national park sites as accessible as possible in the event of a shutdown. Trump officials forged ahead with the plan — but that shutdown lasted only three days.

The current shutdown enters the third week on Saturday.

[The shutdown has turned national parks into the Wild West]

Several former Park Service officials, along with the system’s advocates, said in interviews that activities such as viewing animals and hiking outdoors can carry a greater risk when fewer employees are present.

Diane Regas, president and chief executive of the Trust for Public Land, said the group has sent a letter to President Trump calling on him to close all national parks. In an interview Friday, she said administration officials may have underestimated the broad scope of what it takes to maintain these sites.

“I think we all know that not having bathrooms is a nuisance. What I think people forget is, not having adequate sewage treatment can be dangerous,” Regas said. “When you bring people together, running these parks is like running a small city.

“We are taking risks with some of our most treasured natural resources without knowing that we’re doing our best to protect people, that we’re doing our best to protect park resources,” she said. “When it comes to our national parks, I just don’t believe that’s acceptable.”

President Trump told reporters Jan. 4 he is prepared to keep the government shut down until an agreement on the U.S.-Mexico border wall is reached. (Video: Reuters)

The Park Service estimates that up to 16,000 of its 19,000-person workforce is furloughed during the shutdown. Officials said services such as cleanup and maintenance vary from park to park because of agreements with concessionaires and surrounding municipalities that are donating services such as trash collection and road clearing.

Still, roughly half a dozen rangers are available to patrol Yosemite National Park, for example, which is about the size of Rhode Island. Officials said skeleton crews are working to close off hazardous areas covered in snow and ice.

On Christmas Eve, the 14-year-old girl raced from the lot where her parents had parked to see the Horseshoe Bend Overlook, a dramatic cliff that looks out to a peninsula of jagged rock. After a long search, her parents reported her missing about 5 p.m., triggering an emergency response, according to the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office. She was discovered near the cliff just before dark, causing authorities to wait until morning to retrieve her body.

National Park Service officials said rangers responding to an emergency call found the second victim at Yosemite with a head wound, apparently from a short fall. The man, who was not identified, died of his injuries.

Victor Mendez, a tourist from Texas who was visiting Yosemite with his wife and a friend, said in an email that they found the injured man, who was bleeding through his ears, along with his dog, which was also bleeding, just after 3 p.m. and called 911. He had suffered a bad concussion, Mendez said, and getting him out of that icy area of the park was challenging because the emergency personnel who responded did not have a stretcher.

“This is very sad for us that saw him there,” Mendez said.

One senior National Park Service official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss agency operations, said rangers frequently intercept hikers with dogs and tell them such practice is against the rules and dangerous. Federal regulations specifically prohibit bringing dogs on park trails, given the risk that these pets can come into conflict with wildlife, leave their scent or wander into perilous situations.

A spokesman for the Pacific West Region of the Park Service said that the public was not notified of the Yosemite death because of the shutdown and that the shutdown is also delaying an investigation into the cause of the death. “We aren’t releasing more details because the incident remains under investigation,” said Andrew Muñoz, acting chief of public and congressional affairs for the Park Service region.

Two days after the Yosemite incident, 42-year-old Laila Jiwani was killed by a falling tree on Porter Creek Trail in the Smoky Mountains. One of Jiwani’s two children, a 6-year-old, was flown to a hospital with injuries that were not life-threatening, a Park Service spokesman said.

Yosemite Conservancy chief executive Frank Dean said in a phone interview that the park’s staff is doing its best under challenging circumstances.

“This is the first time in a long-term shutdown where the parks have remained open,” said Dean, who served as a park ranger and assistant to the superintendent in Yosemite before going on to become superintendent for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. “What we’re finding now is it’s not really working, because you’ve got understaffing. As this thing drags on, you’ve got free access and no guidance.”

Daniel Wenk, who served as Yellowstone National Park’s superintendent until retiring in September, said in an interview that not having a robust staff presence could impede the agency’s response to an emergency.

“A casual cross-country skier would want to go to Tower Falls” in Yellowstone, Wenk said. “If they suffer a heart attack — every year you have that — we wouldn’t be able to quickly respond. You might be dramatically delayed. It’s correct, people die in national parks all the time. If you can attribute [the shutdown] to people not being able to get to them for an hour and a half, that’s another story.”

[In selecting national park system advisers, Zinke swaps academics for businessmen]

While a handful of major parks have remained open during past shutdowns, many agency staffers had not anticipated that the budget impasse would persist this long. Now some superintendents are closing areas of their parks as the shutdown drags on, having determined that they cannot adequately protect the habitat, wildlife or visitors.

Mount Rainier’s National Park Inn has been cleaning toilets and collecting trash at its own expense but will stop doing that after breakfast Sunday. Melinda Simpson, operations manager at the concessionaire Rainier Guest Services, said that after that point, the National Park Service “will be then closing the park and locking the gates.”

“We couldn’t continue to operate under these conditions, and really wish we could. It’s very disappointing,” she said, noting that the operation’s 45 employees would have to go without pay while it was shut down. “We are just waiting and looking forward to welcoming the guests when they open up the park again.”

Kristen Brengel, vice president for government affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association, said superintendents need the freedom to close parks if they determine that keeping them accessible is no longer sustainable.

“The political pressure to keep the parks open is overriding some of these judgment calls,” she said in an interview. “We need a release valve here for the Park Service, so they can do the right thing.”

In addition to restrooms not being maintained and visitors not being properly warned and guided by staff, crews cannot work to prepare parks for the summer season and fix roads. Vehicle accidents ranked second behind drowning as a cause of death in parks in 2007, according to the last comprehensive tally released to the public.