Despite the discrepancy, both reports clearly supported their conclusion that the overall risk of death for NP visitors is low (~8 per 10 million visitors). This is likely because the majority of the park visitors avoid high-risk behaviors. Indeed, the findings by Panish, Shea & Boyle LLP also support the opinion of the NPS: “the risk is very low if visitors follow the simple rules and regulations, and use sound judgment
. When looking at fatality rates during the 2007-2013 timeframe, the average rate is 0.57 deaths [per] 1 million visits
,” said Jeremy Barnum, public affairs officer at National Park Service.
Yet how much practical value does a total deaths number provide future visitors to NPs with regards to prevention? Not much, according to articles recently published in Frommer’s
magazines and USA TODAY
, who all question the methods used in the Outforia
study. Further, without using a common denominator, they note, such as the deaths per capita (i.e., annual total visitors) you have no risk probability of death to compare within a NP, or between other NPs. Also, without addressing specific mechanisms in the causes of death and/or contributing behavioral patterns, such as drinking alcohol, or not wearing a lifejacket while boating, no risk-reducing recommendations to decrease odds of dying in a NP can be made.
Another major omission in both the Outforia and the Panish, Shea & Boyle LLP
studies is the probability of death related to specific hazards within specific NPs, for example, dying from getting mauled by a bear in Denali, or drowning while rafting the Colorado River’s whitewater in the Grand Canyon. Natural hazards, not car accidents in NPs, are generally the first thing that comes to mind when one considers death within our NPs. The Outforia article implies such by stating, “From accidental falls to drowning and even attacks by wild animals, over a thousand people have lost their lives in the USA’s national parks.” Yet, it and the Panish, Shea & Boyle LLP
study both revealed that most deaths have nothing to do with natural hazards, and are the result of car accidents, natural causes, or suicide, which are directly proportional to NP visitation.
Again, how useful is this information to future visitors? While knowing which park is the most dangerous to drive in is helpful, it is of limited value to mitigate risk of dying for visitors to the backcountry and wilderness areas of the NPs. Far more helpful are recommendations for physical activities and/or behavior patterns with certain high-risk activity, such as whitewater rafting on the Colorado River with a reliable, well-secured PFD.
More specifically on this topic, from ongoing fatality data assessment at Grand Canyon NP, as documented in Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon
(co-written by T. Myers), we know from the NPS that between 2010 to 2020, the years examined in the Outforia study, 22 people out of 330,000 river runners died while on Colorado River trips. This figure includes all causes of death on a river trip, e.g., drownings, medical, falls, and other causes on shore. This equates to 1 death (all-cause) out of 15,000 river trip runners. However, there were 13 drownings solely when on the water, seven of which occurred while on the river from boat flips while victims were wearing a life jacket. The other six drownings occurred on shore after victims fell or stepped into the fast-moving river without wearing a life jacket. Two cases involved heavy alcohol consumption. By using caution when walking along river edge, avoiding wading into the river without a life jacket, and avoidance of excessive alcohol intake, these categories are all modifiable risk factors for river runners. When you excluding these latter categories, the risk of on-river drownings in Grand Canyon was approximately one death out of 50,000 trips for all river runners.
Interestingly, the Outforia article, despite all its criticisms, is likely correct in listing Grand Canyon NP as the most dangerous when it comes to unintentional deaths from natural hazards. Between 2010-2020, 77 people died below the rims of Grand Canyon (heat stroke/ cardiac arrests during hiking, creek drownings, etc.), while an additional 28 accidentally fell to their deaths. Yet just as true as noted by Panish, Shea & Boyle LLP, “the risk is very low if visitors follow the simple rules and regulations, and use sound judgment.”
If you are a visitor, educator, or clinician counseling a cardiac patient about risks and hazards when visiting a NP, there are many excellent resources on the NPS website
. These include NP trip planning
, with a very thorough park guide handout
, and how to stay healthy and safe
while visiting the parks. They provide awareness of key park hazards
that can potentially result in bad outcomes when rules and regulations are not followed. As the NPS states, learn to recreate responsibly