The national parks are our collective treasure. And it’s great that about 283 million visitors came to see the beauty up close last year.
But a growing number of our fellow citizens and some foreign visitors too are getting too close — or too high, deep or far away — in their explorations.
The numbers were laid out by the website NationalParksTraveler.com just this month.
The National Park Service search-and-rescue teams put in 92,732 hours on 2,876 missions getting people out of trouble that, for the most part, they could have avoided with a better grip on their own physical fitness and more common sense when faced with decisions in unfamiliar country.
A Park Service report said the top contributing factor in rescues was that those needing help were not in physical condition to attempt the hike or other activity they were trying or underestimated the level of fatigue they would experience once too far into the activity to get themselves out unaided.
The second top factor: “error in judgment,” a catchall that basically means failing to turn around, taking the wrong route, underestimating the amount of time before nightfall or a storm hits, bothering large mammals, taking a shortcut, going for a closer view and falling, and myriad other actions ranging from ill-advised to idiotic to fatal.
Third: Trying a hike or other activity without the proper clothing or gear.
High-risk group: Day hikers
Not surprisingly, the biggest group to get in trouble was identified as “day hikers.” Saturdays and Sundays were the most likely day for rescue calls. Though all sorts of people need rescue, the most common profile was a man, age 20-29.
For those who are rescued, there is relief and embarrassment. Nobody wants to have a TV crew ask you how you ended up in a ravine in the Grand Canyon at 3 a.m. without water. Most of the incidents involving the rescue squads have a happy ending — 85 percent of people who need help are located and brought to safety within 24 hours of the first report.
Not surprisingly, people who get into trouble continue to show bad judgment even after needing rescue. The National Park Service urges those seeking rescue to stay put and wait for help. But in more than 1,000 incidents, those needing rescue moved more than a mile from their last reported position. Fifteen cases involved people who moved more than 20 miles.
An unfortunate death toll every year
The worst scenario is recognized several times a year across the country. Last year, 26 hikers died. Though hiking leads to the most calls for the rescue team, fatalities are more likely to involve swimming, with 34 deaths in 2012.
Among the dead: Jacob Adams, 6, and Andreas Adams, 10, of Yorba Linda, Calif. The brothers died last August when they went wading in the swift Merced River near Vernal Fall.
Fourteen people reported missing were never found.
This year is shaping up to be no different. Over two days in June, a woman was swept over a waterfall at Yosemite and a man fell from El Capitan. Both died.
Though the National Park Service covers 84.4 million acres of land, the danger is not evenly spread out. Overall, the highest rate of rescues is in the service’s Intermountain Region, which includes Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, Rocky Mountain, Grand Canyon, Big Bend and other famous parks known for their wild beauty. Second is the Pacific Region, which includes Yosemite.
There’s a price to pay for the rest of us. Though the National Park Service tries to recoup rescue expenses, it recorded $5.2 million in rescue costs. They are our national parks, so we all got the bill.