At some national parks, prevention is the answer to search and rescue risks
By Mike De Socio
Meghan Smith remembers a backpacking trip she took in the Adirondacks when she was in her early 20s. It was winter, and she felt like her group of friends was well prepared to handle the conditions.
But when Smith fell on a patch of ice and ended up with a big bruise, she realized the stakes were higher than she thought. What if she had been seriously injured? They didn’t have a backup plan.
“That was a wake up call for me,” Smith said.
These days, Smith leads the preventive search and rescue program at the Grand Canyon National Park. The goal of her program and other education efforts like hers is to minimize the number of hikers who get stuck in situations like she almost did: Injured or worse in a place where help takes a long time to arrive. By making sure hikers have the information and gear they need to make safe trips into the backcountry at the outset, Smith is ultimately working to decrease the number of search and rescue incidents in the first place through preventative measures.
It’s a model that could be relevant to the Adirondacks, which saw the number of rescues reach an all-time high in 2020. In this second of two parts, the Adirondack Explorer looks into what works and what doesn’t, and whether the Adirondacks should adopt similar solutions to prevent harm and help budgets. Yesterday, we looked at the concept of “hiker insurance cards.” In this article, we’ll consider the preventative search and rescue programs that have significantly reduced the number of incidents at national parks across the country.
‘Think of it as a ski patrol’
The Grand Canyon’s prevention efforts began in the 1990s, when the park launched a “hike smart” campaign backed by a small group of volunteers. It quickly grew, and now includes at least five seasonal ranger positions focused entirely on preventive search and rescue, and a team of 60 volunteers. It’s become an exemplar for national parks around the country.
Here’s how it works: Rangers and volunteers at the Grand Canyon go on “morning patrols” where they try to educate hikers as they begin their journeys into the canyon. Sometimes they help hikers readjust their expectations for what they can feasibly hike, or give them information on who to call if something goes wrong.
“It’s really not about telling people no, we just want them to be realistic,” Smith said. “Oftentimes our mental maps don’t line up with reality.”
The park’s preventive efforts also start long before hikers hit the trail. Online and social media campaigns aim to reach hikers during the planning phase, when they’re most likely to consider or adopt safety measures.
“The in-person contact is really the last-ditch effort,” Smith said. Reaching people early on is much more effective.
Collecting evidence for the success of preventative search and rescue is not a perfect science, Smith said. But during the years since the program started, visitation to the Grand Canyon has climbed dramatically — as many as 6 million people in 2019 — and incidents have remained relatively flat, Smith said. The number of heat-related deaths in the park have also gone down during that period.
Adapting to the Adirondacks
Preventative search and rescue is not a totally foreign concept in the Adirondacks.
Similar efforts, such as the trailhead steward programs run by the Adirondack 46ers and Adirondack Mountain Club, aim to educate and prepare hikers in a comparable way. The DEC also ran a pilot of preventative search and rescue at the Cascade Mountain trailhead on President’s Day Weekend in 2019.
“During this pilot every visitor to the trailhead was greeted by a forest ranger and provided with critical information to promote safety and mitigate the risk of incidents,” said Peter Morehouse, the Police Benevolent Association of New York State representative for forest rangers.
Morehouse said that New York forest rangers are calling on the state to establish a comprehensive preventative search and rescue program, but that it would only be possible with proper staffing levels.
“Unfortunately there are fewer forest rangers in the Adirondacks today than there were in 1980, despite adding a million acres of land to the Adirondack Park with an associated increase of millions of visitors,” Morehouse said.
The PBA wants the state to increase the number of forest rangers from 135 currently to 175. Despite these calls, DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos has defended flat staffing and pointed to partnerships with State Police and other agencies.
Smith also sees unique challenges to implementing preventative search and rescue in the Adirondacks. In the Grand Canyon, it’s one trail in and one trail out in most places. In the Adirondacks, the trail network is broad and dispersed. That makes it difficult to reach a large number of visitors all at once and keep messaging aligned.
“The trick for any place when I’m coaching other parks,” Smith said, “it’s making your messaging consistent across the park.”
Smith said that messaging should come from a place of customer service: Aiming to understand why hikers are hitting the trail, and giving them information they need for a safe, successful adventure.
“We want you to have fun, we want you to come back, we want you to explore,” Smith said.