Many of us are attracted to nature, expansive views and wild settings. This year millions of Americans will come west to visit our national parks, have a family vacation and make personal memories. Almost all will return home to talk of the wonders of mountains, canyons, swift rivers and brilliant stars at night. But a few will not.
A disturbing number of visitors to national parks seek wild settings not for the solace of open spaces, but rather out of deep pain to end their lives. Of the many issues related to America’s public lands, this is one of the most perplexing and hardest for staff to grapple with. It’s particularly difficult for National Park Service rangers committed to protecting people in the parks. This is a unique issue on public lands in the West, and our states have high suicide rates, anyway. In national parks, suicide is the second leading cause of deaths.
Rose Chilcoat is associate director for the environmental advocacy group Great Old Broads for Wilderness in Durango. Early in her career she was a park ranger at Mesa Verde National Park, and at the end of her season a friend of another ranger killed himself in a Park Service trailer.
“Suicide, the voluntary taking of one’s life, is an act so horrific it is beyond comprehension,” she said. “Especially so when the one who chooses such a path is a young, intelligent, vibrant person with a lifetime ahead of them.
“The last thing I expected to be confronted with as a seasonal park ranger at Mesa Verde was the suicide of a fellow ranger’s best friend. It shook my world and changed my beliefs. It was a profoundly sad and difficult time for those of us who were touched by it.”
And yet such violent acts continue. A startling statistic is that of suicides in national parks, 84 percent are males who take their lives in dramatic settings.
At Fort Lewis College, I teach a class called “National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” The class is always full, and I enjoy the diverse mix of students who take the course and vow over the summer to visit national parks they have not yet seen. A few of them seek full-time careers in the Park Service. One of my students, Shannon Assman, chose to write a research paper about suicides in national parks, and during her in-class presentation we all learned about suicide “events.”
The Centers for Disease Control, with the National Park Service, produced a comprehensive study about 84 national parks with 286 suicide events. Luckily, not all were fatalities. The most common methods distraught people use to try to take their lives include firearms, falling, hanging, poisoning or drug overdoses and vehicle-related crashes. More attempts are made in the warmer months – summer, the season we are in now.
Units of the Park Service with the highest attempted suicide rates are the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina and Virginia, Grand Canyon National Park, New River Gorge in West Virginia, Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California and Colorado National Monument. Why? Because of the settings.
“The amazing natural and spiritual beauty of a national park could provide space, solitude and comfort to a wounded soul,” Chilcoat said. “Instead, the draw of a national park may be for one’s point of exit much as a moth is drawn to a flame.”
Chief of Ranger Operations at Glacier National Park Patrick Suddah concurred: “Toward the end of someone’s life, when they’re feeling a total sense of despondency, they want to return to a place of natural beauty – for their final moments.”
These actions create an enormous psychological and financial burden on our Park Service rangers who are already looking out for us by trying to keep the bears away, the campgrounds clean and the traffic flowing so that all visitors can share the national park experience, which my hero Teddy Roosevelt called “essential to our democracy.”
Suicide events can cost up to $200,000 each and require as many as 40 people for search-and-rescue operations, which sadly can become body retrieval. The Centers for Disease Control says “Each death in the national parks represents a preventable event in a public place.” I’m not sure I agree with that. Do we need traffic barriers at every lookout point? Safety nets at critical cliffs?
At Colorado National Monument, depressed people have even ridden mountain bikes off sheer rock walls. What’s possible except additional ranger training in suicide prevention, and even then, how can you predict a tourist’s behavior?
“Visitors come in and look despondent. They do not look healthy, and they do not make eye contact,” said Mark Davison, chief ranger at Colorado National Monument. “Rangers are taught to simply ask – are you here to hurt yourself?” So far this year Park Service rangers at Colorado National Monument have found two potential suicide victims “on the other side of the railing and talked them back.”
Black Canyon National Park Supervisory Ranger Paul Zaenger said: “My first suicide encounter was at the Bullfrog Marina at Lake Powell when a concession employee put a bullet through his head. He survived. There have been seven (confirmed or suspected) at Black Canyon in the 20 years that I’ve been here. A couple of them especially stand out.
“I think we rangers are impacted differently by various incidents depending on the personal level of involvement, number of rangers involved, time of year and so on,” Zaenger said. “In my experience, what makes these events especially difficult is when someone local has decided to end their life. Because we live in the local community, it’s easy to know at least somebody who knows the deceased or a relative of the deceased. It’s possible to see how such events affect people in the local community, and how the disconnection from community can lead to suicide.
“This, in turn, extends the difficulties for rangers to deal with the mental side effects.” Zaenger said. “Working with the local mental-health center, we at Black Canyon have tried to improve our awareness and ability to spot the signs of suicide.”
This is not an easy topic. My hunting buddy committed suicide five years ago, and when fall comes around and I’m cleaning my rifle waiting for deer and elk season, I inevitably think of our times together, where we camped and what he taught me. How tragic that the same magnificent landscapes in the West that draw millions of tourists also lure saddened individuals ready to plan their last sunset.
Historian William Cronin in Ken Burns’ excellent public television film series about the national parks describes these hallowed grounds as places of “intimate transmission” of values and beliefs where Americans pass on their love of landscape and each other from generation to generation.
I remember my first trip to Mesa Verde as a child, and I’ve made certain that my sons have hiked the same trails and stepped into the same ruins. I’ll visit my favorite national parks again this summer, but in addition to surveying the scenery, I’ll look a little harder at my fellow visitors.
In camp if someone seems lost and lonely, I’ll share a cup of tea or a beer with them and engage in some quiet conversation. It’s the least I can do to help out those hardworking rangers in the National Park Service.
[email protected] Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College.