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National parks deaths highlight dangers to public during government shutdown

After three national park fatalities, Rep. Raul Grijalva demands the sites be closed for duration of federal shutdown.

The Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, United States on November 10, 2018. (Credit: Patrick Gorski/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
The Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, United States on November 10, 2018. (Credit: Patrick Gorski/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Three people have died while visiting national parks since the government shutdown began.

The deaths include a 14-year-old girl at Glen Canyon Recreation Area in Arizona on December 24; a man who died on Christmas day at Yosemite National Park in California; and a woman who died two days later at Great Smoky Mountains National Park along the border of North Carolina and Tennessee.

During past government shutdowns the public was barred from accessing many of the country’s national parks. This time, the Trump administration decided to leave the parks open, but largely unstaffed. That has meant radically reduced or suspended maintenance, cleaning, and emergency services.

According to National Park Service spokesman Jeremy Barnum, an average of six people die each week in the park system. This includes accidents such as drownings, falls, and motor vehicle crashes.

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While deaths do occur, and the parks system is vast, drastically reducing the number of staff to nearly 3,300 out of a 19,000-person workforce means there is little help or oversight available to visitors during the shutdown.

In a statement to ThinkProgress on Saturday, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), chairman of the Natural Resources Committee tasked with overseeing the Interior Department (under which the National Park Service falls), noted that while it’s unclear whether these deaths were otherwise preventable, they highlight the importance of public safety.

“Any 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 said.

He continued, “Volunteer and state-level efforts are admirable but shouldn’t be relied on as a replacement for normal federal operations. The Trump administration has forced a government shutdown and is trying to avoid its devastating impacts by pretending nothing is wrong. You can’t have it both ways.”

In Arizona, the 14-year-old girl fell to her death on Christmas eve after “racing 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,” the Washington Post reported.

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Her parents reported her missing at 5 p.m. after a long search. Emergency responders then found her near the cliff “just before dark,” according to The Post, which meant authorities could only retrieve her body in the morning.

The following day at Yosemite, rangers responded to an emergency call at the park — a man, who remains unidentified, had died from a head wound, apparently the result of a fall.

That incident went unreported until January 4 due to the shutdown. And his death remains under investigation according to Andrew Muñoz, acting chief of public and congressional affairs for the Park Service region. The shutdown will likely hamper the speed of the investigation.

According to a ranger speaking with Outside Magazine, only 50 employees were working at Yosemite during the shutdown at the time of the man’s death. Typically, the National Park Service employs roughly 800 workers during the winter season in Yosemite.

Then, on December 27, 42-year-old Laila Jiwani died after a tree fell on Porter Creek Trail in the Smoky Mountains. A Park Service spokesman told The Post that one of Jiwani’s two children, a 6-year-old, was flown to a hospital with non-life threatening injuries.

On Saturday, President Donald Trump had not yet acknowledged the deaths; his tweets continued to blame the Democrats for the shutdown.

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At time of publishing the White House had not replied to a request for comment from ThinkProgress regarding the deadly accidents in the national parks.

“This is the first time in a long-term shutdown where the parks have remained open,” Yosemite Conservancy CEO Frank Dean told the Post. Dean previously  served as a park ranger and assistant to the superintendent in Yosemite as well as a 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.”

Despite the federal government shutdown there’s at least one site that remains staffed with National Park Service rangers: an historic clock tower at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.