For several years, “at most once a day,” my inbox has pinged with any mention of U.S. national parks in the media. As a national parks scholar, I rely on almost daily Google alerts to draw my attention to the local or park-specific media outlets most often reporting wildlife sightings, wildfires, and top five, 10, or 25 lists of the best or worst or most iconic parks in the nation. But in the past 25 days, I’ve not needed alerts.
As the longest government shutdown in history continues, the news cycle has been dominated by reports of the tragic loss of life in parks. Four are believed to have died by suicide, while three more have been lost due to accidents, including a 14-year-old girl who fell from an overlook at Horseshoe Bend in Arizona’s Glenn Canyon Recreation Area on Christmas Eve. In response, Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat and the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, declared that “[a]ny National Park Service unit where a staffing or funding shortfall has endangered public safety or put natural, cultural, or historic resources at risk should be closed for the duration of this shutdown.”
Grijalva was careful—and correct—to note something that is easy to miss in all the coverage: that it’s unclear whether any of these deaths were caused directly by the impacts of the shutdown. Mike Litterst, the National Park Service’s acting chief spokesperson and chief of public affairs, reports that the NPS sees an average of six deaths per week, including accidents and medical incidents. The ripples of the shutdown may have played a role, but seven reported deaths between Dec. 24 and Jan. 5 are not statistically out of the ordinary for national parks. Government shutdown or not, visitors to parks always face the potentially dangerous realities of wilderness exposure when they engage in backpacking, hiking, mountaineering, and other recreational activities that can pose serious risks like falling, drowning, or wildlife encounters. But it’s worth noting that you’re more likely to experience a car accident or a heart attack in a park than to have a deadly encounter with a grizzly bear. (Since Yellowstone was created in 1872, there have only been eight recorded fatalities from grizzly bear attacks.) And overall, not counting suicides, your chances of dying in a national park sit around 1 in 2 million.
Although not statistically unusual, these deaths should call our attention to the dangers park visitors can encounter, as well as the threats visitors pose to park resources—each heightened by the absence of park personnel. By keeping parks open, the Trump administration has risked the safety of people and parks. Perhaps it sought to avoid the negative press that occurred throughout the 2013 government shutdown during which President Obama ordered all parks closed, barring visitors from entry. Instead, Trump’s Department of the Interior has raised our awareness to just how complicated it is to run parks and the park system. Beyond the park service’s famous park rangers, there are public safety enforcement officers, facilities and janitorial staff, wildlife specialists, educators, and administrators. Without them, the parks are less safe, less clean, less educational, and less protected from crowds. Until the government can develop a plan to fully fund the return of these indispensable public servants, the parks should remain closed for the protection of our parks and the people who love them.
In December, the Department of the Interior released a contingency plan (later replaced by this January version) stating that parks would remain accessible to visitors. Even so, “parks may not use the presence of visitors in the park to justify higher staffing numbers than approved during previous shutdowns.” Some states have intervened, providing funds for various park functions in places like Grand Canyon, Arches, Bryce Canyon, and Zion national parks. But in general, visitors are crowding into parks without the oversight of park officials. Though tragedy is still rare, the shutdown may have stunted parks’ ability to respond to visitor emergencies. During one of my research-related park visits, I witnessed the swift and careful response typical of national park officials in the occurrence of a death: Public safety personnel act calmly and decisively to investigate and mitigate any remaining threats, while park leadership respectfully report the tragedy. But that response isn’t possible if adequate staff aren’t present. For example, in late December, rangers responded to a 911 call from a man who later died from his head injury. Several days later, the death had still not been reported by park authorities. Andrew Muñoz, a public affairs officer for the National Park Service, told Outside that the shutdown was to blame: “The incident remains under investigation, which is taking longer than usual because of the shutdown.”
Though the shutdown’s effect on public safety in national parks isn’t clear, it’s impossible to deny that park visitors are leaving waste and ruin in their stead—damage that the parks are helpless to address with more than 21,000 furloughed employees. The growing heaps of trash have inspired some volunteer groups to clean up Yellowstone, Everglades, and Joshua Tree national parks, among others. Shining spotlight on such efforts, Democratic Reps. Jackie Speier and Jared Huffman, both from California, volunteered to clean the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. They later hauled their trash bags to the White House to illustrate the overflowing restrooms and trashed campgrounds plaguing parks.
To cope with the maintenance and sanitation nightmare, the superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park decided to temporarily close the park’s gates. Shortly after the Jan. 8 announcement, however, the acting secretary of the Department of the Interior, David Bernhardt, authorized the use of entrance fee money to fund park maintenance crews. The move has been controversial. In a public statement, Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association, equated the use of park fees to robbery. Park fees are meant to be used for visitor services as opposed to operations and maintenance, and thus the NPCA has recently demanded an investigation into the acting secretary’s decision. Regardless of this recent use of fee funds, precious park resources have already been irreversibly destroyed at the hands of reckless visitors. In Joshua Tree National Park, several of the park’s namesake trees have been vandalized. In some instances, trees have been chopped down to make way for illegal and damaging off-roading into the desert landscape.
In a 1953 Harper’s essay, “Let’s Close the National Parks,” American historian Bernard DeVoto argued that the public shouldn’t be allowed in the parks until Congress could adequately restore parks after wartime neglect and underfunding:
Let us … close Yellowstone, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, and Grand Canyon National Parks—close and seal them … and so hold them secure till they can be reopened. … Meanwhile letters from constituents unable to visit Old Faithful, Half Dome, the Great White Throne, and Bright Angel Trail would bring a nationally disgraceful situation to the really serious attention of the Congress which is responsible for it.
Now, for its own protection, let us close Joshua Tree and all of its kin. In 2019, political divisiveness and government shutdown have prompted parks’ problems, but the need is the same. As in DeVoto’s imagination, park closure may cause local communities to feel the painful loss of tourism dollars, while families will bemoan canceled holidays. But these temporary losses must be held in balance with the long-term health and protection of parks, as well as the safety of park visitors. Until Congress can take responsibility and restore funds, let us close the national parks.