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Three people have died in national parks since start of government shutdown

A conservation advocate wrote the Trump administration urging closure of the parks “to protect the health and safety of park visitors."
Image: National Parks Threatened As Government Shutdown Continues
A shuttered entrance station for Joshua Tree National Park stands at dawn in Joshua Tree, California on January 4, 2019.Mario Tama / Getty Images

Three people have died in national parks around the country, including a 14-year-old girl who fell 700 feet down a canyon, since the start of the government shutdown, during which the Trump administration chose to keep the parks open.

At the Glen Canyon National Park in Arizona, the 14-year-old girl fell from the Horseshoe Bend Overlook on Christmas Eve, the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office confirmed.

An Arizona Department of Public Safety helicopter wasn’t able to recover her body until the next morning, on Christmas Day.

Later on Christmas Day in Yosemite National Park in California, a man died after he slipped down a long, granite hill and fell into a river, injuring his head, according to the Associated Press.

Andrew Munoz, a spokesman for the National Park Service, told the AP that the investigation into the man’s death is taking longer than usual because of the ongoing shutdown. He added that the shutdown also delayed the park service's announcement of the man’s death.

A third person died Thursday of this week, when high winds caused a tree to fall over on top of a woman and her 6-year-old son in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, the AP reported. The woman died and her son broke his leg in the accident.

The Washington Post first reported Friday on the series of deaths that occurred in national parks during the government shutdown.

The National Park Service did not immediately respond to NBC News’ request for comment on the deaths and the impact of the government shutdown.

Many of the thousands of national park rangers are on furlough because of the shutdown that began Dec. 22, making conditions in parks more dangerous and affecting the capacity to conduct timely rescues.

Unlike in some recent government shutdowns, the Trump administration has chosen to keep national parks open, and many people are visiting them, with some noting they do not have to pay the usual entrance fee.

The Clinton administration in 1995 and Obama administration in 2013 chose to close all parks during the respective government shutdowns. In 2013, the Obama White House took a great deal of criticism from Republicans for its decision to close the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C.

With the parks open and the number of rangers on duty sharply reduced during the current shutdown, there is also no regular trash pickup or waste removal at bathrooms at many parks, causing potential hazards to people and the environment.

Diane Regas, the president and CEO of the Trust for Public Land, wrote a letter to President Donald Trump Thursday urging that the administration close the parks “to protect the health and safety of park visitors and to protect park resources.”

“Millions of people visit national parks every year, and the federal government has a responsibility to care for their health and safety,” Regas wrote. "And yet during the shutdown, we are informed that trash and human waste are piling up on roads and in campgrounds in places like Rocky Mountain and Joshua Tree National Parks. Hundreds of people suffer injuries in national parks every year, and operating the parks without search and rescue staff is also unacceptable.”

Esther Rivera Murdock, executive director of Rocky Mountain Conservancy — a nonprofit that supports the Rocky Mountain National Park — said she is discouraging people from entering the parks during the shutdown.

She said many parks in Colorado and the West have been lucky because snowfall and a lack of plowing due to the shutdown have acted as a natural deterrent to visitors.

“I don’t want to encourage my staff and visitors to be in the park unnecessarily at any time because it is unsafe [without park rangers],” she said. “There is not a regular response time.”