Following the deaths of two people in separate incidents at the Grand Canyon this week, experts said that while such tragic cases are still incredibly rare, national parks have been dealing with a higher number of visitors with fewer resources.
On Thursday, a visitor with a tour group at the Eagle Point observation area of Grand Canyon West fell over the edge while taking a selfie, a park spokesperson said. Meanwhile, authorities at Grand Canyon National Park were working to identify the body of a person found Tuesday.
While the details of both incidents remain unknown, experts said that officials are working to keep people safe by putting up railings, posting warnings signs and having staff inform the public of dangers. But the parks are also working to do so amid declining resources.
“I know that the parks are trying to do everything they can, the question is how much can they actually do with limited resources,” Phil Francis, the head of the Coalition to Protect Americas National Parks, said.
There were more than 318 million recreational visits to national parks in 2018, according to the National Park Service. While that was down 3.8 percent from the 330 million the year before, it was still the third highest year for visits behind 2016 and 2017.
Francis said there has been a “fairly dramatic“ decline in the number of employees at parks. Some of the major national parks, such as Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains, lost 20 to 25 percent of their law enforcement ranger staff over the last 10 years, he said.
That decrease could lead to longer response times in the case of an emergency or force rangers to make judgement calls on which incidents to respond to first in a triage situation, Francis said. Additional staff could also help educate the public about park history and safety.
The National Park Service did not immediately respond to request for comment on the number of deaths in national parks per year.