7 people have died in national parks during shutdown; that’s not unusual

In the 16 days since the government shutdown began and more than 21,000 National Park Service employees were furloughed, seven visitors to national parks have died.

Three of those deaths were accidental, including that of a 14-year-old girl who fell off Arizona’s Horseshoe Bend on December 24. Four other deaths are believed to be suicides, according to Mike Litterst, the National Park Service acting chief spokesperson and chief of public affairs.

But though tragic on their own, the tally of deaths is not out of the ordinary for the expansive National Park Service, which sees an average of six deaths per week, Litterst said. The deaths include accidents like drownings, falls, and motor vehicle crashes, as well as medical incidents such as heart attacks, he said.

Overall, that’s a miniscule fraction of the more than 330 million people who visited the 418 sites in the National Park System in 2017, according to National Park Service data.

The National Park Service, which usually employs 24,681 people, furloughed all but 3,298 of them when the shutdown began on December 22. Many parks remained open for the shutdown, but there were no visitor services, restrooms, trash collection, facilities or road maintenance, the National Park Service said.

Still, there’s no evidence that the deaths these past couple of weeks are related to the shutdown.

The 14-year-old girl who died was found at the bottom of Horseshoe Bend, about 700 feet below the overlook. Her body was recovered Christmas morning around 10 a.m., and the initial investigation indicates she died of an accidental fall.

In addition, a male visitor to Yosemite National Park in California died on Christmas Day after suffering a head injury above Nevada Fall, according to a statement from Andrew Munoz, acting chief of public and congressional affairs with the National Park Service, provided by CNN affiliate KFSN.

A 42-year-old woman from Texas, who was hiking with her husband and three children, was also struck and killed by a falling tree in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on December 27. The accident occurred amid high winds, Litterst said.

So far, shutdown-related issues at national parks have mainly had to do with cleanliness and sanitation. For example, at Joshua Tree National Park in California, campgrounds were forced to close January 2 for health and safety concerns as vault toilets reached capacity, the National Park Service said.

“In addition to human waste in public areas, driving off-road and other infractions that damage the resource are becoming a problem,” the agency said.

Yosemite National Park also closed a number of campgrounds and facilities within the park because of impacts from human waste and public safety concerns, the National Park Service said.

Still, the National Park Service did note that the investigation into the death of the Yosemite visitor was affected by the shutdown.

“We aren’t releasing more detail because the incident remains under investigation, which is taking longer than usual because of the shutdown,” Munoz said. “A news release wasn’t issued because of the shutdown.”