Many of us are attracted to nature, expansive views and wild settings, so it’s not surprising that this year millions will come West to visit our spectacular national parks. Almost all will go back home to talk of the wonders of the mountains and the brilliant stars at night. But a tragic few will never return.
A disturbing number of national park visitors seek wild settings not for solace, but because they’re in such deep pain that they’re determined to end their lives. This is particularly difficult for National Park Service rangers, who are committed to protecting people in the parks. Yet suicides are nothing new to rangers these days; in fact, suicide has become the second leading cause of deaths in national parks.
Rose Chilcoat is now associate director of Great Old Broads for Wilderness, a nonprofit group based in Durango, Colo. Early in her career, however, she was a park ranger at Mesa Verde National Park in southern Colorado. At the end of one 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 says. “Especially so when the one who chooses such a path is a young, intelligent, vibrant person with a lifetime ahead of them.” The event, she recalls, “shook my world and changed my beliefs.”
The Centers for Disease Control, along with the National Park Service, recently produced a comprehensive study of 286 suicide events that had taken place in national parks. Luckily, not all were fatalities. The most common methods distraught people employed included firearms, falling, hanging, poisoning or drug overdoses, as well as vehicle-related crashes.
An overwhelming 84 percent of these suicides are men who have decided to take their own lives in dramatic settings, most commonly in the summer.
The Park Service units with the highest attempted suicide rates in the West included Grand Canyon National Park, Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Colorado National Monument. Why? Because of their settings.
Chilcoat expressed dismay at the apparent contradiction: Although the natural and spiritual beauty of a national park often provides comfort to a wounded soul, she says, “The draw of a national park may also be for one’s point of exit — much as a moth is drawn to a flame.”
The chief of ranger operations at Glacier National Park, Patrick Suddah, concurs: “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.”
Suicides, however, create an enormous psychological and financial burden for park rangers, who are already looking out for visitors by trying to keep the bears away, the campgrounds clean and the traffic flowing. Suicides and suicidal attempts can also cost up to $200,000 each and require as many as 40 people for search and rescue operations, which, sadly, often end in body retrieval.
Can these deaths be halted? According to the Centers for Disease Control, “Each death in a national park represents a preventable event in a public place.” I’m not sure I agree with that. How does one prevent such deaths? Do we need to erect traffic barriers at every lookout point or install safety nets at every cliff? At Colorado National Monument, for example, depressed people have chosen to ride their mountain bikes right over sheer cliffs.
There have been times, says Mark Davison, chief ranger at the western Colorado monument, when “visitors come in and look despondent. They do not look healthy and they do not make eye contact. Rangers are taught to simply ask: ‘Are you here to hurt yourself?’ ”
So far this year, park rangers there have encountered two potential suicide victims, standing “on the other side of the railing.” The rangers were able finally to talk them back.
How tragic that the same magnificent Western landscapes that draw millions of tourists also lure desperate people planning to see their last sunset. When I visit my favorite national parks again this summer, I’ve decided to pay attention to more than just the scenery. I’m going to look a little more closely at my fellow visitors. And if someone seems lost and lonely, maybe I’ll offer to share a cup of tea or a beer and engage in some conversation. It’s the least I can do, not just for them, but to help out our hardworking, compassionate Park Service rangers.
Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado.