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Know the West

Deaths drive change at Lake Mead


BOULDER CITY, Nev. - Lake Mead has never pretended to be anything but a watersports playground for the masses. Recreational pursuits that would make visitors outlaws at most areas managed by the National Park Service get a warm reception at Lake Mead.

This summer, the lake hosted a hydroplane boat race, a bass-fishing tournament and a bikini contest. Even "personal watercraft" like jet skis, which some call tools of the devil, are given unrestricted access to Lake Mead, the 29 million acre-foot body of water behind Hoover Dam, about 10 miles east of greater Las Vegas.

With an average of 10 million visitors annually, this is the busiest national recreation area in the country, centering around the nation's largest manmade lake.

It also leads the national park system in fatalities.

Thirty-six people have died this year at America's oldest and most popular national recreation area, an average of almost one fatality every week. Most of them perished from a lethal combination of what park rangers call "recklessness and cluelessness."

There have been 22 water-related fatalities on the 250 square-mile lake this year, prompting the National Park Service to declare that drowning has reached "virtual epidemic proportions" at Lake Mead.

"The fatality rate is not something we are terribly proud of, and it is not acceptable within a unit of the National Park Service," says Alan O'Neill, the park superintendent. "We've got to rededicate ourselves to making sure people can come here and not fear for their safety."

Coping with the tragedies

At most national parks, high-stress events such as body recovery or multiple fatalities trigger a visit from a "critical-incident response team." The group of professional therapists helps employees cope with post-traumatic feelings. At Lake Mead, the steady diet of boating accidents, suicides, drownings, murder-victim dumpings, drug overdoses and exposure deaths could keep an army of therapists busy around the clock.

"It was getting to be routine because there is just so much of it; how can you deal with it every day and not get numb to it?" says O'Neill. "But this year, something happened. In our hearts, we just said enough is enough."

So O'Neill did what may have been unthinkable for a sunny shoreline so close to the party capital of Las Vegas: He banned alcohol on a popular section of beachfront and closed another beach to vehicles after 10 p.m.

The park is also developing a new Lake Management Plan that suggests even more sweeping changes, such as prohibiting alcohol consumption by boat pilots when a craft is under way, requiring wakeless operation for watercraft passing within 100 feet of one another, and prohibiting motors on boats operating in primitive sections of the sprawling lake complex. Authorities are also considering mandatory boater education and certification as a means to reduce accidents.

"Voluntary boating education is not working," says Jim Holland, the park planner. "You have to look at boating-safety education the same way you look at hunter-safety education. That is, getting young people started the safe way early."

Park Service cops

A new federal audit says Lake Mead's ranger corps should have at least 33 additional officers and duty hours expanded to include overnight shifts.

"We're next door to a 24-hour city, so it only follows that we get 24-hour recreation activity," says O'Neill. "In peak season, some of our boat ramps are as busy at 3:30 in the morning as they are at 3:30 in the afternoon, but we don't have enough staff to cover the park around the clock.

"People have overwhelmingly told us they want more enforcement activity on the lake," says O'Neill. "That is not what you'd expect to hear from folks in the West." One example: Sunbathers recently gave rangers a standing ovation when they arrested a drug dealer on a Las Vegas Bay beach.

Better policing of the masses is not the only option, say staffers; reducing rowdiness and recklessness at Lake Mead may be as simple as charging cars to enter the recreation area. Lake Mead officials have asked the National Park Service for funds to build a series of entrances to begin collecting admission, something that was started at Utah's Lake Powell in 1997 with good results.

If funds are provided, Lake Mead officials conservatively project annual revenues of $5 million - money that will stay at the park to improve facilities and increase staffing.

But while Glen Canyon built rustic "stick and brick" entrance stations, there are concerns at Lake Mead about gangs and safety that require fee stations to be more like armored bunkers. Plans call for building Lake Mead's entrance stations with poured concrete walls and bulletproof glass.

"It's unfortunate, but it's a reality here," says O'Neill. "This has become an urbanized wilderness."

Christopher Smith reports for the Salt Lake Tribune.

You can contact ...

* Lake Mead National Recreation Area, 601 Nevada Highway, Boulder City, NV 89005 (702/293-8907).