Four people have died at national parks around the country, officials said Friday, amid a partial government shutdown that has reduced resources and staffing despite thousands of people continuing to visit the scenic open spaces.
On Christmas Eve, a 14-year-old girl fell to her death at the iconic Horseshoe Bend overlook in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Arizona. Then on Christmas Day a man died at Yosemite National Park after sustaining head injuries while on a water-slick granite slope known as the Silver Apron.
Two days later, a woman died after being hit by a falling tree in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. On that same day, a woman's body was found after she'd gone missing from the Delaware Water Gap National Recreational Area in Pennsylvania on Dec. 23, the day after the shutdown began.
At least three of the deaths appear to be accidents. But officials couldn't say whether fewer resources may have played a factor in emergency response efforts.
Unlike previous government shutdowns, when officials in the Interior Department elected to close the parks to protect natural resources and public safety, the Trump administration has decided to keep the facilities open. While the parks continue to see thousands of visitors each day, they are running with reduced staff as operations like trash removal and restroom facilities remaining closed. Concessions at most places have remained open, but the number of rangers working the vast parks have reportedly been reduced.
Asked about staff reductions at Yosemite, Andrew Muñoz, the acting chief of congressional and public affairs, told BuzzFeed News his office lacked the resources to compile those numbers. However, he pointed to regulations that state parks may not use the presence of visitors to justify higher than approved staffing numbers.
Emergency responders, including fire, EMS, and law enforcement personnel not required for essential activities may also be called back to duty if an emergency situation arises.
In the Yosemite death, Muñoz said park rangers were on the scene in less than an hour. Officials on Friday said after the death was made public that the John Muir and Mist Trails to Vernal and Nevada falls, as well as Tuolumne and Merced Groves, will be closed beginning Jan. 5 "for safety and human waste reasons."
The body of the teenager who fell 700 feet to her death at Horseshoe Bend couldn't be recovered until Christmas morning because nighttime conditions made the operation too dangerous.
The woman who died at Great Smoky Mountains National Park likely died instantly due to the crushing force of the large tree, her husband said.
The 52-year-old woman in Pennsylvania was reported missing by her family. She had last been seen wearing hiking boots and her vehicle was parked in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, according to the Pocono Record. After her body was found, a NPS representative told local media that it was investigating her death but no comment would be made during the shutdown. No foul play was suspected, according to local media.
Muñoz noted that fewer resources would likely affect investigations, and had played a role in the delayed announcement of the Yosemite death, which was only made on Friday.
The partial government shutdown, he said, would slow down the investigation into the man's death, the cause of which was not immediately known.
Diane Regas, the CEO of the Trust for Public Land, wrote a letter to President Trump on Thursday urging him to close all national parks during the shutdown.
“Millions of people visit national parks every year, and the federal government has a responsibility to care for their health and safety,” Regas wrote. "And yet during the shutdown, we are informed that trash and human waste are piling up on roads and in campgrounds in places like Rocky Mountain and Joshua Tree National Parks. Hundreds of people suffer injuries in national parks every year, and operating the parks without search and rescue staff is also unacceptable.”
"Allowing access to national parks without taking care to steward those resources is irresponsible," she continued, "and could result in irreversible damage and loss."