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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

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