We need more forest rangers! We can’t afford more forest rangers!
That, in a nutshell, is the debate we’ve been hearing for many moons.
In 2018, rangers participated in 346 search-and-rescue missions. Forest ranger Scott van Laer, who is based in the High Peaks region, says the more time rangers spend on rescues the less time they have to patrol the backcountry and help visitors stay out of trouble.
There is a simple solution to the problem: stop rescuing people.
This is not my idea. I ran across it in a collection of papers titled “A Wilderness Round Table” published by the state Department of Environmental Conservation in 1987. The papers had been presented the previous year at a symposium on wilderness management sponsored by DEC.
I bought this publication at a library book sale last year. I was intrigued by the essay “The Case Against Search and Rescue,” by Robert Kruszyna, a New Hampshire resident. I later learned he is a physicist who has climbed mountains all over the world and helped write guidebooks to some of the Canadian ranges.
In the essay, Kruszyna recounts the foolhardy exploits of hikers and mountaineers and the perilous and expensive efforts to rescue them. He seems to lament the passing of the era of the rugged individualist and our reliance on government to bail us out, whether from poverty or wilderness, and to watch over our health and safety. He comes off as a wee bit of a curmudgeon, but a witty one. “I anticipate that any day now Senator Kennedy will offer a resolution that no American ever need die and it will be approved by acclamation,” he writes.
Kruszyna argues that people who venture into wilderness should accept the risks and the consequences. “Climbers who exercise good judgement and who know their limitations rarely need to be rescued,” he writes. “Those who are unprepared, cocky, irresponsible do not deserve our concern. Let their sad fates serve as a warning, rather than bringing them back to cause us trouble another time.”
No doubt such a policy would save the state money and free up the rangers. Just as important, though, is that it would deepen the wilderness experience, at least in the eyes of Kruszyna.
“Personally, I view the prospect of a guaranteed search and rescue as robbing climbing of its sense of adventure, which is probably the only meaningful justification for an otherwise useless activity,” he says. “Risk is an intrinsic part of that sense of adventure.”
Kruszyna was not alone in adopting this philosophy. Back in the 1980s, some people called for setting aside “no-rescue wilderness” on federal lands—areas where hikers and climbers understood that if they got into trouble, no one would come to their aid. Backpacker magazine even ran a debate on the topic, but the idea did not gain much traction.
Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, says the notion of letting recreationists suffer and die for their mistakes appeals only to those with a radical idea of wilderness. “We have a lot of wilderness in the United States, including the Adirondacks, and nowhere is that the policy,” he remarked.
Now 87, Kruszyna stopped climbing a dozen years ago, but he hasn’t altered his views. “People need to take responsibilities for their actions in society in general,” he told the Explorer.
His late wife, Harriet, felt the same way. When the two of them ventured into the wilds of the White Mountains, “we never even told people where we were going,” he said. So strongly did they hold this belief that they flouted a regulation, then in force, that required people to sign trail registers.
Kruszyna once asked a forest official what would happen if he failed to sign in at the trailhead. “He told me I could be fined twenty-five dollars,” Kruszyna recalls. “So I then asked him: ‘Can I pay in advance?'”