How Far Should National Park Rangers Go To Safeguard Your Life?

Recent drownings, and near drownings, at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore have generated concerns that the National Park Service needs to have more lifeguards on duty at the lakeshore. NPS photo of swimmers at the lakeshore's Lake View beach by Christopher Light.

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?



This is probably one of those questions for which there is no good answer. Rangers and other park employees cannot guarantee the safety of all visitors. Most visitor accidents can be traced to a couple things: unfamiliarity with conditions--it's harder to climb down than up or streams run quickly, or hypothermia robs one of the ability to make wise decisions, etc.--or carelessness--overloading boats, not controlling small children, diving into shallow water--or not properly assessing the potential results of one's actions--getting too close to wild animals, under estimating the physical difficulty of backcountry trips. Your post reminds me of the long discussion on the Traveler about the hike up Half Dome and what the NPS should or shouldn't do to protect visitors. We had a similar thread on Angel's Landing in Zion. The truth is that a visit to a national park takes people out of their comfort zones and puts them in places where their decisions can have tragic consequences. Most of us know what parts of town we don't visit after dark We are familiar with this. Most visitors don't have the same instinctive knowledge about what works and what doesn't work in a park. Professor Joe Sax argues in his book, Mountains without Handrails that if we overengineer parks to make them safe we lose the wildness that makes them special. I agree with him.

Rick Smith

I agree with the above.
It is not Nature that requires the handrails but the public's attitude towards Nature.

Its quite the red herring to suggest the possibility of the National Park Service with the responsibility "to have lifeguards overseeing each inch of beach, lake shoreline, or stretch of river?" I can just imagine lifeguards on the Alagnak Wild River.... Har!

More seriously, this question can be rephrased as - "should the National Park Service eliminate unsupervised swimming in National Parks?" I think the answer should be obvious - of course not!

So rather than beat this red herring further, I think this discussion is a useful starting point for discussing the role of user fees in National Parks. Lifeguards are interesting in that they have almost "resource protection" value, they are there to provide services to visitor - primarily recreational swimmers. So why should the public purse, with so many demands for funding from replacing crumbling bridges, to hurricane relief, to AIDS and cancer research, to feeding starving people in Africa, to bank bailouts - pay for lifeguards for recreational swimmers? Why shouldn't the swimmers who desire lifeguarding services pay for it?

Or to put it another way - this article directly poses the question of "what is the optimal number of lifeguards at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore"? Right now some people think there should be more lifeguards - but how do we tell what the right number is? Well a great way to do it (and the way we decide how much of most things to produce in this country) is to start charging user fees for use of lifeguarded beaches - if the beach starts to fill up, keep raising the fee until you can add more lifguards or until the beach isn't full anymore. Its as simple as that really.... And this would put paid to Superintendent Dillon's protestations of not being able to find qualified lifeguards or of needing to balance other duties - if the lifeguards are paid for out of the user fees, then the lifeguards aren't competing with other budgetary and programmatic priorities. *


* - that's not totally true due to a quirk in Federal law, but this would presumably be corrected by any Congressional proposal to fund lifeguards through user fees

I've always considered the role of park rangers to protect the environment from the visitors, not the reverse. Despite all the warnings and instructional material about the dangers in the parks, we still have visitors recklessly approaching wildlife, climbing over barriers to the edge of cliffs and bluffs, and ignoring other danger signs. We have the adage, "Buyer Beware"; we should add "Park Visitor Beware".

Well, I assume Sebattis and most other readers know many NPS beaches do have fees, where collecting fees is practical. The larger issue Mr. Smith and Kurt cites is the real issue, and the blithe way the fee issue is discussed in the Sebattis contribution seems to be the real red herring here.

But to address the hanging-fee point: accompanied by the forceful urging of the Department of the Interior and by the House Appropriations Republican staff, that fee money is focused on maintenance, not lifeguards or park rangers. Projects, not salaries. At a beach not far from where I live, it has always seemed to me the fee-paying public must assume the fees are actually going to lifeguards and park rangers, but they do not. Inasmuch as President Bush made paying off the NPS maintenance backlog his major NPS plank when he ran for President, but has not requested the appropriations to keep that promise, it was considered a cute way to keep a campaign promise without paying for it.

The larger point of fees, appropriations, partnerships, and ALL the combined forms of available money is: there is not enough of it. It is conservative ideology not to pay for government employees, probably specifically because that employee generally is working for the good of all Americans rather than special interests. As now, with the Wall Street meltdown, or with the Events of September 11, when we realized the consequences of privitizing airport security, someone must be assigned by the people of America to focus on the main objective of a given agency's Mission.

The main Mission of the NPS is to protect the parks unimpaired for public benefit and enjoyment. Increasing privitization of a government function ALWAYS eventually has the unintended consequence of pushing the government manager to work on behalf of the funding source, the special interest. In the case of parks, the threat of an imbalance of private funding is compromising the primary NPS Mission. Just like with food safety, drug safety, financial security and even national security. There are revenue-generating opportunities that may not undermine the Mission if applied properly, but revenue generation is not (despite the Sebattis presentation) a panacea. These are facts, and we need to avoid ideological myth-making when addressing the realities.

The larger issue here is exactly as Mr. Smith and Professor Sax, in his "Handrails" book describes. Hypersafety practices can ruin what makes parks special. The smaller issue, that there are places where surpervised beaches and use of safety features may be permitted depending on the character of that specific place.

NPS should not control every visitor experience, provided it can be accomplished without undermining the park purpose. NPS should have the resources it nees to provide safe experiences and facilities were that is appropriate. Right now NPS does not have the money it needs to accomplish the modest kind of management required by the Mission.

No red herring. An important topic that should not be cynically obscured.

While I appreciate information provided to help me make an informed decision, I don't want the government to protect me from myself, whether the "danger" is what I read/watch, what I smoke, or where I swim.
This includes the NPS.


Rick Smith had an excellent take on this question in his post above. This issue has been around as long as there have been parks. Finding a balance between protecting visitors while allowing them to experience a park will always be a challenge, and budget limits are a big factor.

For better or worse, some of those decisions are lawsuit driven; when something goes wrong, it's probably typical of most large organizations to try to prevent a repeat occurrence. Managers and the agency solicitors (lawyers) don't want to be seen as irresponsible or uncaring when someone is hurt or dies, and the solicitors in particular don't want to lose a lawsuit if the same problem occurs again.

Here's one example: Not long before I worked at Lake Mead back in the 1970's, a tragic accident occurred when a youngster on an ATV was riding cross-country in the desert, was driving too fast to react to the terrain ahead, and drove off into an open, vertical mine pit. If memory serves correctly, the family had been warned by a ranger not to ride in the area, but did so anyway. In the wake of that accident, the park invested a huge amount of time and money in an attempt to locate and fence "all" of the abandoned mines in a very large park - given the rugged terrain, an almost impossible task, but the effort was made. That area is riddled with abandoned mines - some vertical shafts, some horizontal tunnels. Many of them are very difficult to reach on the ground, and many are not shown on any maps.

Rangers spent many hours on the ground and in the park's small plane looking for those mine entrances - the pilot flew around and around in concentric circles while the lucky spotter tried to pick out suspected mine openings and mark them on a map for follow-up verification. That's a ride on a hot, summer day that's guaranteed to find out if you're susceptible to motion sickness!

When I transferred to another park, that project was still underway, but a lot of progress had been made.

A similar project had been completed in parts of the Buffalo National River in Arkansas before I arrived there in 1986. A number of mostly horizontal tunnels were left over from a Zinc mining boom decades ago, before the park was established. They were dangerous due to rock falls, sudden drop-offs, etc. and all of the entrances were fenced and signed, warning of the danger and advising that the area was closed for safety reasons. It was an on-going battle to keep the fences intact and replace stolen signs.

In such cases, the park can only do as much as possible, and hope to avoid an incident. Some people are determined to get themselves in a jam, no matter what the park does.
I described them in the introduction to my first book with a quote from the novelist Will Henry: "The Lord pours in the brains of some with teaspoons, and still gets his arm joggled even so."

Jim Burnett

The dangers that park visitors often find themselves in are described in a fascinating way in the book, Off the Wall, coauthored by long-time ranger Butch Farabee. The book chronicles all the deaths that have occured in Yosemite since it became a park. Many of the vignettes in the book explain where people went wrong, whether crossing a steam above a waterfalll, clipping into a rappel anchor not properly set, or underestimating the effects of cold, wet weather on one's ability to make good decisions. Mike Finley, the former superintendent of Yellowstone, in the foreward accurately observes that this is not a book about death, but about life because in every story there are lessons to be learned. I was captured by the book and read it in just a couple days. I highly recommend it to NPT readers.

Rick Smith

In response to d-2, the fact that "user fees" are being diverted from user services to other purposes, like maintenance, is exactly part of the problem. It both undermines the perception among the public that they are "getting what they are paying for", and also decreases the incentive for Park Superintendents to use user fees to expand visitor services that can't currently be supported under current budgetary conditions. At the risk of getting "too inside-the-beltway" here, one option would be for the Park Service to get the authority (if they don't have it already) to treat certain user fees as what the government calls "offsetting collections." In the world of federal budgets this would literally mean that the user fees for, say, lifeguards would directly offset the cost of the lifeguards - and so in certain representations of the NPS's budget, the lifguarding program wouldn't apear at all, because the costs and revenues would be "offset."

At the end of the day, there's two possible debates to be having hear. I still think that the original post here attempted to frame the debate as "should the Park Service try and make the Parks absolutely safe" - which I think is obviously pretty absurd. There is a debate to be had on "should the Park Service make the Parks more safe than they are today?" and perhaps "does the Park Service have enough budgetary resources to reach a desirable level of safety in the Parks" - but I didn't see those debates as being presented by the original post.

Thanks, Sebattis, for such a good answer. I, too, worry what will happen when the public realizes it is not paying for what it thinks it is.

And thanks, also, for identifying the multiple threads we need to look at to properly understand, and respond to, these complex issues.

I think a distinction needs to be made between Seashores and Lakeshores that are isolated from urban areas, and NPS areas like Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore that is an urban park. the Indiana Dunes area has been attracting users for well over a century, primarily from the greater Chicagoland area, all seeking the beautiful beaches, and swimming in Lake Michigan. Management needs of certain parks change with time. Why wasn't INDU established as a recreation area?

While he never mentioned this desire in the many sound bites he issued during this summer's drownings' press coverage, Superintendent Dillon needs an increase in visitation, because that means an increase in operational budget for sure (which could pay for increased lifeguard coverage). He rightly mentions preserving and protecting the natural resources, yet what is the main resource of this park? The beaches. When do the majority of visitors come to this park? The summer months. So why isn't more money going into the primary visitor experience: beach use, and the resultant obligatory safety personnel needed to protect and educate the visitors?

Until the National Park Service addresses the over arching questions "why don't visitors do what they know they should do" it will continue to struggle with visitor use management. Yes, the National Park Service mission is as much about managing the visitor as it is the resources. Understanding human behavior and treating the public like adults is an answer. If the park service continues to react to the accident, not look at what led to the accident, then the accidents will continue to happen. When people enter National Parks there is a sense that they will be taken care of. If they understood that dangers exist they would be more inclined to prepare themselves for it. Drowning statistics in National Parks are staggering. For the most part visitors who drown in National Park Sites do so because they failed to wear a life jacket. Yes, life jackets do save lives. If boaters/swimmers understood that choosing not to wear one increased the likely hood of drowning oh say by 99.9% they might consider putting one on. When a person gets "in trouble" in the water it is a life or death situation that must be dealt with immediately. Being a good swimmer in a pool does not convert to open water. In open water you cannot swim to the edge of the pool or bounce off of the bottom. Only people who have trained themselves to deal with the threat of drowning have a small chance to survive. The general population do not train themselves to survive a drowning event. The stress that overtakes their body and mind prohibits them from making rational decision; their brains are shut off, as demonstrated by the thrashing around in the water that takes place prior to sinking under. Don't hire more life guards, partner with organizations that teach water safety, establish life jacket loaner or give away programs and teach the public to take care of themselves. Oh and by the way, this will decrease the amount of risk Park Personnel assume because someone decided not to wear a life jacket and let them get back to the business at hand, protecting the parks from the people.

Excellent comment, wise words Mr. Anoymous.

At the same time, life guards also have a place, and can warn the public in the event of riptids or particularly dangerous surf. Some public high-use beaches should have life guards, and parks should not have to choose between resource protection projects and an appropriate level of life guards.

But on the big picture, Mr. Anoymous, you've nailed it. Parks and protected places should provide education programs for people to learn how to conduct themselves in the nature.

George summed up a key to many visitor incidents when he noted, "Despite all the warnings and instructional material about the dangers in the parks, we still have visitors recklessly approaching wildlife, climbing over barriers to the edge of cliffs and bluffs, and ignoring other danger signs." Those attitudes also relate to the previous post about life jackets and education. If they prove to be successful, programs which would encourage increased use of safety devices such as life jackets would certainly be a plus. As always, it comes down to priorities for limited funds and personnel. Does a park like Indiana Dunes cut back on lifeguards, rangers or some other activity to fund safety education, and hope for the best? Not an easy answer.

I spent quite a few years at parks with heavy water-based activity, including Lake Mead, Buffalo River and Big Thicket, and it was an uphill battle to convince people to wear life jackets, even when conditions were clearly less than ideal. Looking back, I'd agree that more time spent on proactive safety education programs would have been a plus, but the reality is that most of the time we were just trying to deal with "the tyranny of the urgent."

As an example, at Lake Mead I worked at an area that was quite busy 7 days a week about 7 months out of the year, and on weekends year-round. We had 2 rangers available for a "sub-district" covering a huge piece of real estate. That meant if we were lucky enough to get in our 2 days off duty each week, there were 4 days of the week with only 1 ranger on duty to cover the full 24 hour shift; on busy weekend days, we each worked either an early or late shift. When the "train got off the track," the nearest help from other rangers was 30 miles and 45 minutes away - if we were lucky. I hope that doesn't sound like whining - we didn't, we just hung in there and did the best we could. I'm afraid that in some (most?) parks, things haven't changed a lot in terms of available staffing.

A couple of posters commented about the ranger's job being to "protect the parks from the people." That's certainly a key role - and a challenging one. When I started my NPS career way back in 1971, I was taught that the "protection" aspect of a ranger's job had three main elements: protect the park from people, people from the park, and people from each other. All three certainly continue to occupy a lot of a park employee's time and energy.

This just in from Lake Mead 19 year old Bullhead City man died at Lake Mead after he jumped into the water off of a boat and did not re-surface. Yes, a recovery followed, several divers risked their lives to pull the body up. If he wore a life jacket this would be a none event. Let's keep this thread going, let’s bring attention to something that matters to both visitors and our employees in the National Park Service. Why do people who recreate in water park units choose to disregard the one thing that will save their lives? If they really knew how many visitors die in parks doing exactly what they are doing they might think twice. Let’s give visitors the benefit of the doubt, treat them like adults and let them really know the kinds of dangers that exist in National Parks. They might just surprise us and start taking care of themselves.

Strict disagreements with the views of those that think funding for lifeguards should not be in budgets for national lakeshores and national seashores, in fact all parks with aquatic recreation should be adequately staffed. I know of places where there were traditionally lifeguards in the summer months and are replaced with interpretation displays of water safety. Despite the criticism that lifeguard teams can only effectively manage a couple miles of beach from superintendent Constantine Dillon, perhaps allocating communication and perhaps even mobilizing the lifeguards to respond to aquatic emergencies within the park would add to the efficiency of lifeguards. This method has worked in some NP’s, some state parks and other recreational areas where the real estate is expansive and not easy to cover. There is also the solution of hiring seasonally what we called “beach ambassadors” or aquatic safety information officers. Normally this person works during the seasons of high visitation, informs visitors of aquatic safety precautions, how and when to wear a lifejacket, and actions to survive a rip current and other such pertinent info. These persons have often worked walking the beach and speaking to visitors on a one on one basis. Normally staffed by an SCA internee, a summer college student earning experience, or the camp hosts, or VIP (volunteers in parks). This is an inexpensive way to ad to the proactive approach of aquatic safety within the NPS, and need not be a trained lifeguard. I have received many positive feedback from appreciative visitors regarding this type of information officer.
I know that lifeguards spend a lot of time in preventative actions with park visitors. This activity of informing patrons is so important and does help save lives. Improving the visitor experience is what working for the NPS is really all about. “Knowing is half the battle!” is a motto for the action figure G.I. Joe and it is true that properly informing patrons of the hazards of the park is half the battle.
Lifeguards should not be done away with and the response time for rangers to gear up to respond to aquatic emergencies is lengthy. Having L.E. rangers whom are trained in aquatic rescue is a good idea, yet specialization and diversification often are combined within NPS personnel staffing in order to “cover all the bases under financial constraint.” In situations where seconds matter, it is always efficient to have lifeguards on staff at all times in parks where there exists a danger of aquatic hazard. Is a L.E. Ranger or Interp Ranger effectively able to lock a gun in a vehicle, radio dispatch of possible rescue, gather rescue equipment, and entry into water within minutes in order to assist a struggling victim? With a nation that has all the resources to continue preserving the parks from the people and resources and willing people to protect those people from the park, it is eminent that “resourcefulness” be attained in creating a solution to the hazards in the park. Lifeguards are part of this resourcefulness. Expand the scope from which lifeguards can work within the parks and you just might find that you will have some very valuable employees.