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Front Page » June 17, 2003 » Opinion » Public Land Focus
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Public Land Focus

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Professor of Geography, BYU

In recent debates over motorized recreation I have, on numerous occasions, heard or read people express their belief that they had a "right" to drive their vehicles on public land.

And while this is an interesting debate, I have been wondering lately about another right�do we have the right to go out on public land and get lost, injured, or worse?

The recent news coverage of a truly epic self-rescue in Blue John Canyon led me to reminisce about not only my own experience in that canyon�but also the numerous search and rescue missions my wife and I participated on in the 1990s with our two dogs.

One instance that always stands out for me was the report of a Colorado man missing near Canyonlands Needles District. My dog, Ambush, and I drove to Moab where we spent the night waiting for the rest of the search team to assemble.

The next morning we located the missing man's vehicle and tent near Lavender Canyon and began our search on foot.

I started Ambush in the missing man's tent and he quickly picked up the scent and headed up one of several nearby canyons. Halfway up the narrowing canyon I knew we were closing in when I stopped to hoist my bag up a six foot cliff and Ambush jumped over my head and ran up the canyon. I caught up just as we came around a corner and found the body.

We found the body near the back of the canyon, and upon further examination it became apparent what had happened. He had either been trying to climb out or into the canyon when he fell and suffered a head injury. He then attempted to bandage his head before he stumbled several hundred feet before he collapsed. Only a scattered pack and streaks of blood along the canyon wall told the story. He was only a half-mile from his vehicle�a strong hiking companion could have carried him out.

Now most searches I went on did not end like that�in fact most were over by the time I got there.

But it's amazing how many people manage to get lost. But one of the beautiful things about public land is we have many places where it's possible to get lost.

Perhaps my favorite story of a lost person was when I took off for Rwanda and left my pregnant wife at home. Enroute to Africa I called home from England to see how she was doing and was told she had flown to Wyoming on a search.

I later found out that my pregnant wife ended up riding a horse up the mountain with her dog in search of two guys from Chicago. They ended up walking out on their own but it must have taken some of the luster off their adventure when they realized that a pregnant woman from another state had been flown in to find and rescue them.

But they took a risk, so did the guy from Colorado. And many of us take these risks all the time when we go into public land.

One of the things that draws so many of us to BLM lands is that there are not signs and rangers at every turn making sure that nothing goes wrong. In a meeting a few weeks back I heard the opinion expressed that it would be nice to have a sign at the back of Little Wild Horse Canyon showing people which way to Bell Canyon.

I can see why people feel the need for even more signs in this area�it is often busier than a national park. But hopefully we won't make BLM lands more and more like national parks. Despite the occasional tragedies I hope we can keep the possibility of problems alive.

When I went down Blue John Canyon a couple of years ago with three able companions we struggled down through one of the most amazing and difficult slot canyons I have experienced. It is easy to see why those seeking a challenge would head to this remote gem.

At the end of the day we found ourselves in a deep dark section standing in chest deep ice water facing a steep cliff. We had to back track and climb out the side of the canyon. It was exhilarating and when my legs thawed out I realized I had left a lot of skin on the sandstone walls.

A lot of the adventure and lure would have been lost if signs pointed the way, a permit was required, and we knew that if it got too difficult a ranger was always nearby.

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