Another Perspective

Don’t Jump

The right to die in our national parks -- who picks up the tab?

By 6.29.09

The other day a 20-year-old man from Salt Lake City named Nicholas Mostert climbed over a railing on an observation platform and hurled himself into the swift, deep waters of the Yellowstone River in Yellowstone National Park. According to witnesses, he disappeared beneath the water. Mostert was most certainly swept to his death over the nearby 308-foot raging precipice of Lower Yellowstone Falls. As of this writing his body hasn't been recovered, though articles of his clothing have been. It will eventually surface downstream in slower water.

Suicides in national parks are becoming an increasingly noteworthy phenomenon. According to a recent story by the Associated Press, in 2008 thirty-three people chose to end their lives this way. These include a 53-year-old failed businessman who shot himself in Glacier National Park in Montana; a 46-year-old cancer patient who canoed into Florida's Everglades and disappeared; a 65-year-old biology professor who chose Canyonlands in Utah to return his (according to his suicide note) "body and soul to nature." These incidents have risen by more than 100 percent in the last five years (2004--16; 2005--18; 2006--18; 2007--26). According to a story in the Arizona Daily Star (Tucson), ten people have killed themselves at Grand Canyon National Park since 2004 (three in 2008 alone). Nicholas Mostert is Yellowstone's sixth suicide since 1997.

Without delving into the miserable lives of these poor souls, these cases point to a desire on the part of the suicide to have a last glimpse of life lived amidst magnificent natural surroundings: in perfect solitude, with gorgeous views, observable wildlife, and maybe trilling birdsong in the ears. So let's assume that these are green-oriented folks. If this is true, in a twisted way it's the ultimate statement in support of the environment. And from the "right to die" point view, it seems like a noble, romantic thing to do. Once asked about the rash of suicides, Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said: "Parks hold a special place in people's hearts. There are some individuals who feel it's important to have that kind of connection in those final moments."

But the problem with Mr. Nash's conciliatory statement is that liberals can't even kill themselves without costing the taxpayers a lot of money. The National Park Service maintains an annual Search and Rescue budget of approximately $3 million. In 2007, it went over budget and spent $4.7 million. This is common now. Most of these funds are devoted to rescuing lost hikers, backpackers, stranded mountain climbers, and other many-times unprepared people, and for dealing with medical emergencies and accidental deaths. Some parks (such as Yosemite) have started charging an extra visitors fee as a kind of insurance policy in case the visitor needs to be rescued. And this seems to be the wave of the future as the parks struggle to defer these huge costs.

Yellowstone's efforts to recover Nicholas Mostert's body have so far required a number of rangers (who certainly have more important things to do) to hike down into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone below the falls to monitor certain points of the river. Meanwhile, a National Park Service helicopter hovers overhead scanning the river (I'm sure the helicopter's buzzing up and down the river does a lot to enhance the wilderness experience of Yellowstone visitors). Helicopter cost? $300 per hour. The man who shot himself in Glacier last year caused 40 people from various agencies to be employed in the search and recovery of his remains. When somebody jumps into Arizona's Grand Canyon, it again might require a helicopter retrieval, or a combination of a helicopter and rangers rappelling down a cliff on ropes. Needless to say, thousands of dollars of taxpayer largesse are required for the recovery of a single body. Multiply that by 33 last year.

It can be argued that these unfortunate incidents occur regularly on the public lands -- whether it be Forest Service land or Bureau of Land Management property -- not just in the national parks. After all, taking one's life in lonely, remote country in the West (or anywhere else) is as old as the West itself. And it can also be argued that the same Search and Rescue stratagems apply anyway. Even a suicide or other death at home requires a public response. But the idea of ending-it-all in a place that will trigger an expensive coordinated search strikes me as wasteful and as selfish as the act itself.

So there's nothing to say to Nicholas Mostert except, Rest in Peace. And don't worry, we'll pick up the tab.

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.