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Search and Rescue Toolbox

The Search and Rescue Toolbox is a 'work in progress' and represents only the information available. In addition to the resources provided here, you may also be able to obtain advice and recommendations through discussion on Wilderness Connect. Date of last update: 3/6/12.
  1. Introduction
    1. Overview
      Stewardship of wilderness includes management of emergencies related to injured or lost visitors. These situations almost always arise without warning and must be addressed quickly and efficiently to prevent further injury or death.

      In most cases on the national forests, the local Sheriff’s Office (or other state or local entity) will have responsibility for search and rescue operations and likely is the organization best equipped to handle it. However, the Forest Service retains the authority to approve the use of aircraft, motorized equipment, and mechanical transportation devices, including wheeled carts. (This authority is typical for wildernesses except in Alaska where special provisions of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act apply.) This authority is delegated to the Forest Supervisor (FSM 2326).

      Section 4c of The Wilderness Act of 1964 provides an exception for the use of normally ’prohibited uses’ such as aircraft, motorized equipment, and mechanical transport when it is determined to be the minimum necessary. For non-emergency situations a Minimum Requirements Analysis is typically prepared to assess first the need for action in wilderness and second to select the method or tool which has the least impact on the wilderness resource. In emergency situations a detailed analysis is inappropriate and the decision on authorization of the normally prohibited uses should always err on the side of protecting human life.

      For most units a Search and Rescue Plan is useful to establish and document emergency procedures between the responsible authority and the Forest Service. Preparation of this agreement can help both parties foster a better understanding of the mission, responsibility, and authority of both organizations. Use of the ’minimum requirements’ concept is appropriate during preparation of the Search and Rescue Plan so that all parties involved are following established procedures during the emergency, and applying the minimum requirements concept, without unnecessary delays or risks to victims or rescuers.
    2. Law
      1. Wilderness Act
        Section 4(c) Except as specifically provided for in this Act, and subject to existing private rights, there shall be no commercial enterprise and no permanent road within any wilderness area designated by this Act and except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act (including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area), there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.

        The language in the Wilderness Act of 1964 identifies measures necessary for addressing human health and safety emergencies as one of the special provisions for which otherwise prohibited activities can be authorized. The prohibited uses that apply to search and rescue operations typically include landing of aircraft, use of motor vehicles (including snowmobiles, and possibly use of motorized equipment such as chainsaws.
      2. Minimum Requirements for Search and Rescue Operations
        The language in the Wilderness Act of 1964 identifies measures necessary for addressing human health and safety emergencies as one of the special provisions for which otherwise prohibited activities can be authorized. The prohibited uses that apply to search and rescue operations typically include landing of aircraft, use of motor vehicles (including snowmobiles, and possibly use of motorized equipment such as chainsaws.

        Once an emergency situation involving the health and safety of people in the wilderness is reported it is too late to prepare a detailed analysis to determine if helicopters, snowmobiles, motorboats, or other motorized equipment should be authorized. The Minimum Requirements Decision Guide (MRDG) is not suitable for use in an emergency situation. Instead, utilize the Minimum Requirements concept (as required by Section 4 c of The Wilderness Act of 1964) and the MRDG to help plan strategies and tactics for the Wilderness Search and Rescue Plan and/or agreements with state, county and other responsible organizations. The goal is to achieve a level of understanding and compliance with the Section 4c provisions that gets everyone involved with the emergency focused on doing what’s needed for the victims, providing safe conditions for rescuers, and minimizing impacts on the wilderness resource.
    3. Agency Policy
      1. FWS
        1. 610 FW 2.33
        2. 610 FW 5.9
      2. FS
        1. 2320.3.10
        2. 2326.02, .03, .04
        3. 2326.1
    4. Wilderness Stewardship Principles
      (from Wilderness Management, Hendee 1990)
      The bolded principles are particularly relevant to Search and Rescue operations in wilderness.
      • Manage wilderness as one extreme on the environmental modification spectrum
      • Manage wilderness as a composite resource, not as separate parts
      • Manage wilderness, and sites within, under a non-degradation concept
      • Manage human influences, a key to wilderness protection
      • Manage wilderness to produce human values and benefits
      • Favor wilderness-dependent activities
      • Guide management with written plans that state objectives for specific areas
      • Set carrying capacities as necessary
      • Focus on threatened sites and damaging activities
      • Apply only minimum regulations and tools necessary to achieve objectives
      • Involve the public as a key to acceptance and success of wilderness management
      • Monitor conditions and experience opportunities for the long-term
      • Manage in conjunction with adjacent lands
    5. Four Cornerstones of Wilderness Stewardship
  2. Existing Agency Guides, Processes, and Templates, Handbooks
    1. FS
      1. Management Practices
      2. Memos
        1. 2006 Memo
        2. 2007 Memo
      3. Templates
        1. WSSA MoU Template
        2. Search and Rescue Plan Template (from Region 4)
  3. Examples of Plans, Agreements, MoUs, and Analysis Documents
    1. FS
      1. Aircraft Wreckage Removal Standards - Shasta-Trinity NF
      2. MoUs
        1. Bighorn NF, Johnson County Sheriff
        2. Gallatin NF, Gallatin County Sheriff
        3. FS R6, State of OR Sheriff's Association
        4. Targhee NF, Fremont County Sheriff
        5. White River NF, Eagle County Sheriff
      3. Plans
        1. Deschutes NF
        2. Mt. Shasta Wilderness
        3. Wasatch-Cache NF
        4. White Mountain NF