Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Final Question On Suicides In National Parks

Do you believe the park and the rangers do an effective job of attempting to limit the number of suicides on the parkway?

This is hard to quantify.  I do not believe that the National Park Service is responsible for the mental health of our citizens.  On the other hand there are numerous accounts of experiences in parks having a positive effect on a person’s attitude and perspectives in life’s challenges.  Who knows how many people have been aided or lives changed in their battles against depression or despair by an encounter with a place of beauty and solitude.  I contacted many people during my career who were in the park to escape their problems, to think, and to bring themselves back to a more grounded existence.  This seemed to work for them.

In some jurisdictions, specific locations have been closed or restricted to the public by the placing of fences or barricades and nets under bridges to prevent or deter suicides.  These physical barriers may be affective in an urban area but are intrusive and disruptive to visitor experiences in historic or natural areas.  I am unconvinced that in most cases such measures in National Parks would deter a determined individual from attempting to ending their life.

I reached out for input from other readers as to measures taken to prevent or deter suicides.  In most examples park rangers are aware of areas that have a history of suicide incidents.  Patrol of these areas is generally increased with attention to persons who show indicators of depression or unusual behavior.  Readers have also encouraged use of the Critical Incident Stress Management and Debriefing practices for responders.

One interesting idea comes from Japan where signs are placed at locations where suicides have developed a pattern urging individuals to think about their families and includes a telephone number for suicide hotlines.  I have never seen this approach in National Parks.

With the latest wave of budget cuts and the restrictions that they impose on park managers, the number of park employees will most likely be reduced.  The shortage of funds will also impact the ability of park rangers to intercede in a variety of emergency situations due to staffing reductions and accompanying cost saving measures such as lowering fuel consumption and mileage restrictions on vehicles and diminishing quantity and quality of training and refreshers.

Park employees are aware of the potential for persons to attempt suicide in our National Parks.  Being alert for the indicators of an individual in mental distress and is the best way that park staffs can be prepared to help others.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Next Question On Suicides

Here is the next in a series of questions sent in by a college student on the subject of suicides in our National Parks and more specifically the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Do you know any measures being taken to prevent these suicides?

Suicide is a serious mental health issue facing this country.  Although as a Park Ranger I often felt like a counselor, park employees are not trained nor certified professionals in this field.  Many of the suicide incidents I have investigated involved patients of mental health professionals who were fighting depression and other issues for long periods of time.

Most Park Rangers are trained in emergency medical services and are prepared to provide initial physical treatment to victims of suicide attempts.

One lesson from my career is the realization that each human being is a vastly complex and unique entity that is not easily understood or influenced once determined on a specific course.  This has been confirmed by psychologist that I have worked with and makes the prevention of suicides once a person has made the final decision challenging and at times dangerous.

I am not aware of any specific steps designed to prevent suicides in parks.  The openness and accessibility of National Parks are some of the features that draw people to spend time there.

Law Enforcement Park Rangers are trained to deal with what is termed “deviant behavior.”  This includes persons suffering from depression and under the influence of drugs and alcohol.  Park Rangers are alert for signs of unusual conduct that would be clues that a person may be suicidal.  As a result of this training and awareness there have been numerous instances where Park Rangers have intervened and prevented a suicidal person from carrying out their plan. 

Here is a link to one such incident:

Park Rangers also call on other local resources when confronted by a person who may be intending suicide.  In some cases we called in mental health professionals and family members to talk people down so they can be disarmed or moved away from the edges of precipices.  

In some instances Park Rangers have risked their lives to save a person from taking their own life.  In one such instance a Park Ranger grabbed a person as they began to throw themselves off a bridge.  The tackle just came within a hairs breathe of them both going off the bridge to the river below.  In another case a Deputy Sheriff, a family member, and I maneuvered to take a loaded rifle away from a man sitting in the driver’s seat of a car with the barrel placed under his chin and a finger on the trigger.  We were ultimately successful, but the rifle did go off sending a bullet through the roof of the car and thankfully missing everyone present.

Unfortunately, as long as persons who are struggling with life to the point that they want to end it seek places where they may have fond memories or a place of peace and scenic beauty, they may be attracted to National Parks to complete their plans. 

Do any of my Park Ranger readers out there know of any specific steps being taken in their parks to prevent suicides?

Friday, March 25, 2011

Another Suicide On The Blue Ridge Parkway

The body of a man, the victim of a self inflicted gunshot wound, was found on the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Rockfish Valley Overlook in Virginia.  The Overlook is located at mile post 1 and close to Interstate 64 and the cities of Waynesboro, Staunton, and Charlottesville.

This is not the first time a tragic life has ended at this overlook.  During my career I worked in this area for 25 years and investigated several other such incidents including one murder suicide involving a recently divorced couple.  The husband had picked the wife up at her parents' home in Waynesboro leading them to believe they were going to a restaurant to work out a financial matter.  Instead he took her to the Rockfish Valley Overlook shot her and then shot himself.

For more information on this latest incident go to:

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Suicides In Our National Parks

I received several solid questions from a college student working on a project in relation to the study released in December 2010 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stating that the Blue Ridge Parkway had the highest number of suicides and suicide attempts of any other national park from 2003-2009.  Readers may remember other blog entries I have written on this tragic topic in December 2010.

How do you think the suicides over the past years have affected both rangers and guests of the parkway?

This is an insightful question that is not often asked.  In most incidents there is little concern for the affects of a suicide on the park employees that discover and or have to deal with the tragedy.  There are several levels of involvement by employees that can have short or long term affects.

The first are the persons that find the victim of a suicide.  During my career we had maintenance personnel, volunteers, and interpreters who found dead bodies in most instances by chance.  These employees are not often trained or mentally prepared to process the vision of dead bodies that can at times be quite gruesome.  In one instance I had two seasonals who responded to what they had been told was a disabled vehicle.  What they found was a man who had committed suicide with a hand gun.  The rest of their season was disrupted by this experience.

Then there are those that respond to such incidents and have to conduct the investigations and prepare reports and conclusions.  These individuals have to learn more about the victims, their families, relationships, and lives to confirm that what occurred was a suicide.  Dealing with family members and friends can be stressful when they question the investigative findings or attempt to hide or conceal background information.  I had one suicide case involving a prominent member of the medical community twenty years ago and I still get questioned by his friends on whether there was some doubt about the findings.

These experiences do not leave you.  Some people are better at compartmentalizing memories than others.  But they still have to come to terms with their encounters.  Some may have dreams reliving the incident or investigation.  Dealing with future multiple traumatic incidents can also manifest in how an individual reacts to future involvement in similar situations.

Luckily there have been a limited number of incidents where visitors have been directly affected by suicides.  There have been few cases where a visitor has found a victim and then once interviewed they normally leave the area and there is no follow up on what impacts the experience had on them.  I worked two investigations where a person committed suicide in front of other visitors.  We determined that they wanted their action to be viewed so their remains would be dealt with quickly.  I could not think of a more dramatic disruption of a vacation.  In other cases areas of a park may be closed to the public while the crime scene is processed.  This could inconvenience visitors for short periods.

It has been my experience that while the incident or investigation is on going your adrenalin is pumping and you are focused on problem solving and looking ahead to the next step in the process.  Once the dust has settled and you are back home is when what you have been through comes to the surface.

The National Park Service provides a program for Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) that provides an opportunity for individuals to talk with trained peers and counselors following a serious or violent occurrence.  In many instances parks do not make enough use of this program to aid employees involved dealing with suicides and other short term investigations.

I will share the other questions and responses in later posts.

National Park Service Budget Cut - Again

The latest proposals for the Federal Budget in Washington include $100 million in cuts to the National Park Service.  For more information see the links below:

Here is an earlier story on the budget in our National Parks and some strong comments on both sides of the argument.

Suspect Pleads Guilty To Murder On The Blue Ridge Parkway

Ralph Leon Jackson who was arrested for the April 5, 2010 shooting of two people that lead to the death of one victim five days later has plead guilty in Federal Court.  This plea deal was agreed to by Jackson to avoid the death penalty.  While in court Jackson stated that he thought he was shooting his son in law on the Parkway.

You can learn more details at:,0,1119922.story

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Bluffs Coffee Shop and Lodge Not To Open This Spring On The Blue Ridge Parkway

While working as a park ranger in the subdistrict of the Blue Ridge Parkway that includes Doughton Park I spent many a fond time in the Bluffs Coffee Shop.  I think that at least for 15 minutes my desire for "Big Otis" ice cream sandwiches was legendary.  After serving and delighting park visitors since 1949 this will be the first spring the Coffee Shop and Lodge will not open for business.  This is due to contracts expiring and the failure to find a new proprietor to take over the operation.

In addition to providing services to visitors, the Coffee Shop and Lodge have provided employment for local residents.  One of the shining examples of these workers is Ellen Smith who has waited tables every season since the Coffee Shop opened.  Ellen and her husband Paul are both on my list of the best people I have ever known.  Their kindness, caring, and sharing of life are legendary among an army of young park rangers and their families that were fortunate enough to live at the Bluff's Maintenance Area.  I can not begin to count the times that the Smiths helped out my wife, new born son, and myself during our time there.

We would often half joke that if Ellen ever decided to quit her job at the Coffee Shop they would just have to shut down.  It is a sad day but a credit to Ellen that the Coffee Shop gave out before she did.

Although Ellen's record is unsurpassed, Kathryn Joines is right behind her with only 55 years service as a waitress at the Coffee Shop.  Employee loyalty like this is hard to find.

This same contractual fate is lurking over other Blue Ridge Parkway concessions facilities.  In Virginia the Peaks of Otter contract has also expired.  In this case the existing company has agreed to a one year extension to allow the park to find a replacement.  Hopefully this gesture will provide enough time to prevent an eventual shut down.  There is always hope as the National Park Service continues its attempt to find a new contractor and that the concession facilities at Doughton Park will reopen sometime in the future.

For more information go to:

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Pig’s Tail – The Park Ranger’s Dilemma

Starting a vocation as a National Park Ranger is a bit like entering into a marriage.  You feel confident in the knowledge of what you are getting into at the start, but have no real way of predicting what is to come.  Such are the many duties and experiences of a park ranger throughout a career.

 As a District Ranger on the Blue Ridge Parkway in 1987 I was responsible for management of the living history farm at Humpback Rocks in Virginia.  The objective of the farm was to transport visitors back to the late 1800s when small farms were common in the Southern Appalachians.  One element that was felt to be critical to creating the farm ambience was the presence of domestic animals.  The farm had chickens that free ranged during the day and a pig who was kept in a “bear proof” pig pen as mountain farmers had done when fattening them up for market.  The pig was quite popular with visitors, with children taking the most interest.
Barn with Bear Proof Pig Pen to the right at Humpback Rocks

About half way through the summer an obviously upset woman came into the cabin at the farm outraged that this poor pig was being confined in the pen.  She wanted to know if we took it out for walks and accused us of most likely not even giving the pig a name.  The employee that the woman confronted was flabbergasted to say the least.

The truth be known, we had indeed given the pig a name.  An annual employee name the pig contest had been conducted and the winner was a play on the current director of the National Park Service, William Penn Mott.  The costumed interpreter stuttered and could not bring herself to tell the woman that the swine’s name was “William Pig Mott.”

Within days the Park Superintendent received a letter from a Congressman’s office accompanied by a complaint protesting the treatment of the pig.  Being a diligent manager I enlisted the assistance of an Interpretive Specialist from HQ and had the pig examined by a veterinarian and its living conditions evaluated by a professor of animal husbandry from Virginia Tech.  The Vet certified the pig as healthy and happy and the professor wrote a statement outlining the infinitely better living conditions as compared to a pig in a commercial farm operation.

Even with all this documented information the Park Superintendent did not want to be bothered with any more Congressional questions about pigs.  So he ordered us to get rid of the swine as soon as possible.
In the past a local farmer had loaned the park a pig for the summer at the end of the season the pig would be returned to the owner.  Several years before an administrative officer at Headquarters had found out about this arrangement and declared it illegal and put an end to it.  Apparently the fact that the pig was fed by government employees and was provided free government housing made the animal the property of the US Government and therefore it could not be given back to the farmer.  By 1987 for us to provide an ambience of pig on the farm I had to take part of our limited budget, find a farmer willing to sell us a single young pig, and then take it to the livestock market to auction at the end of the season.  We could not return or sell the pig to the original owner since it was then government property.

Once the Superintendent made his decision the only choice we had was to take the pig to market.  It was awkward getting the auction to sell just one little pig, but we were able to persuade them to cooperate and eventually talk them into giving us a written receipt.  Once the sale was complete one of my fellow park rangers asked the purchaser what his plans for the pig would be.  “Oh, he will be bacon by next week,” was the response.

That fall the woman who had complained and wrote the letter showed back up at the Humpback Rocks Farm.  She did not appear to believe that the folks working recognized her, but they knew exactly who she was since her actions had resulted in the lost of their beloved piggy friend.  Suddenly her children came running up to her in front of the cabin calling out “Mommy, Mommy, we can’t find the pig.”

Although several explanations were ripe on the tongues of the two interpreters present they just stood there perhaps glaring a bit at the woman and did not say a word eventually turning their backs and walking away.  The woman and her children eventually wondered off to the parking lot and left.  No one ever remembers seeing her in the park again.