How many hats should we expect national park rangers to wear? Already we expect them to cover law enforcement, interpretation, and backcountry patrols, and to be quick to put on their "search and rescue" hat when need arises.
Should they also be lifeguards or, perhaps more generally, safety officers whose role is to protect park visitors, at times from themselves? And if so, in these days of scant funding, how can the National Park Service fill that need?
Those questions arise as drowning reports from this past weekend come in from around the National Park System. There was a canoeing accident at Biscayne National Park that resulted in one death, a boat mishap at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area that led to another, and a near-drowning in the tricky waters along Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, which reported two drownings earlier this summer.
The Biscayne incident, which played out Sunday, saw a canoe with four passengers -- three adults and a 3-year-old -- capsize in Atlantic Ocean waters near Mowery Point. The man who drowned swam out to sea for some unknown reason instead of swimming toward the shore.
Last Saturday at Glen Canyon a 19-year-old man apparently drowned after falling off a powerboat tooling about Lake Powell. The incident occurred just south of Gregory Butte near Buoy 26. According to park rangers, Luke Rogers of Seattle "had been standing on the bow seat of a powerboat holding onto the bow line for balance while the boat was on plane. When the operator slowed the boat down, Rogers was ejected. The operator and a passenger aboard heard a thud and stopped the boat. They circled the area looking for Rogers and called for assistance on marine band radio."
At Indiana Dunes, where two teen-age boys drowned in separate incidents (one in July, another in August), an 11-year-old girl nearly drowned on Sunday when she floundered in the Lake Michigan waters off the lakeshore's Kemil Beach.
In the wake of the incidents, which were associated with riptides, the Indiana Dunes superintendent has been feeling pressure to bolster his ranks of lifeguards. Currently, only the lakeshore's West Beach has lifeguards on duty.
According to Superintendent Constantine Dillon, funding problems contribute to the lack of lifeguards across all of the lakeshore's beaches.
“Standards for beach lifeguards are that at least two lifeguards be on duty at all times. Lifeguards can only oversee a few hundred feet of beach per team and the amount of shore that can be safely patrolled diminishes as conditions worsen and/or crowds increase. It would therefore be impractical, as well as prohibitively expensive, to have lifeguards on 12 miles of NPS beach,” he told the Chesterton Tribune
Beyond the dollars and cents issues, Superintendent Dillon notes that finding qualified lifeguards isn't easy.
In the newspaper story, the superintendent also pointed out that, “The primary responsibility of the National Park Service is to preserve and protect the natural and cultural resources of the park and we must always balance this responsibility with providing other services. We try to balance all the park needs within the budget we have and it is not simply a factor of replacing one kind of employee with another.”
There are many, many other areas in the National Park System where visitors could -- and do -- get in trouble in the water: Cape Cod National Seashore, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Cape Lookout National Seashore, and Point Reyes National Seashore, just to name four. And, of course, there are the other national lakeshores as well as the many parks and NRAs that have lakes and rivers were visitors go to enjoy themselves and occasionally get into trouble.
How great is the National Park Service's responsibility to have lifeguards overseeing each inch of beach, lake shoreline, or stretch of river? Should visitors be expected to pay more attention to water conditions (and posted warnings), assess their own capabilities, and rely on commonsense before entering the water?
Of course, you can take those questions further by expanding them to encompass all backcountry travelers, whether on water or land. The bottom line: How much responsibility should rangers bear to ensure your safety? What do you think?