FacebookTwitterInstagram Youtube
Adirondack Explorer

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Should we stop rescuing people in wilderness?

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.

Forest rangers help a man who fell on the Cascade. DEC photo.

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?'”



Phil Brown

Contributor Phil Brown was editor of the Adirondack Explorer from 1999-2018. When he isn't at his desk, he's usually out hiking, paddling, skiing, or doing something else important.

10 Responses

  1. MDKADK says:

    Finally! An answer to the overcrowded and less than wilderness ADK experience! Although I personally have said for years that there should be a disclaimer at the trailheads that warns of rescue costs for anyone found hiking without necessary preparations, this extreme idea would actually do a better job in “thinning the crowds.” With all the recognition that the ADKs are too congested, why do we see so much advertising and “improvements” to invite even more people in for a spin. I see so many sneaker and flip-flop hikers that it lessens the personal joy from getting on the trail and trying to enjoy the wilderness – ADKs a victim of success! Go natural selection, go rescue-less, go wilderness!

  2. jim boyce says:

    we should be required to buy a hiking permit/fishing license or hunting license if you go more than 100 ft off the road

  3. Scott E Niles says:

    What if your son or daughter was the one lost? If we have money for free Ipads and college classes for inmates, then we have enough money to hire more forest rangers.

  4. David Hance says:

    Just send them a hefty bill for the rescue services.

  5. Charles & Diane Stearns says:

    Leaving these people will improve the future hikers and hunters. It did in the past. We are over protecting the mentally unfit.

    • Gebby says:

      It takes eons to evolve, so I doubt we would see changes in hiker behavior if rescues ceased and the trails would be littered with bodies, rather than their plastic wrap and poop!

  6. ssmeby says:

    We could place a minimum time limit on searches for adults. Say you have to be missing/overdue for 2 days before the state starts looking for you. It might discourage the people who think that a cell phone is the only piece of equipment they need.

  7. Bret says:

    Huh. I initially chose not to comment because I thought my views would be far too harsh for this site. I see I was wrong. I’ve thought about this quite a bit and IMO those requiring rescue should certainly be helped. We’re not animals after all. OTOH, perhaps requiring these people to post some sort of insurance bond prior to entering the State Lands should be looked at. The taxpayer shouldn’t have to foot the bill for peoples foolishness. It is also my opinion that anyone using State Lands should have to have a land use permit, just as fisherman, hunters, trappers, power boaters, snowmobilers, ATVers, etc. do. A $25.00 fee (equal to the least expensive regular fishing license) would help offset the costs of trail system upkeep, search and rescue, Forest Rangers, etc. Seems only fair since I have to buy a license to hunt and fish my own land I already pay taxes on! Why does the “outdoor adventure” clan get a free ride?

  8. Gebby says:

    And stop putting out house fires, because they probably left the stove on and it’s their fault. Oh, and stop going out to car wrecks after 2 AM, because they’re probably drunk and it’s their fault. And why not stop treating people for fatal illnesses, they’re just going to die anyway? We live in a civilization and we care about our fellow man and woman. Rescuing is part of it. I am however all for the “Hike Safe” card concept that NH has and billing hikers if they are being rescued due to negligence.

  9. scott van Laer says:

    I think the premise is absurd. This isn’t Everest, we don’t need to leave bodies on the mountain. S@R missions are not that expensive. In looking at S@R incidents from 2017 the most expensive incident seems to be the Wallface search which was about 250,000-300,000, which includes salaries and OT of permanent employees, mostly rangers. Of course, that one would likely have never occurred if there had been a ranger on the trail that day. #AddNYSRangers

Leave a Reply