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Rangers are rescuing average visitors — like you — from the national parks, and it’s expensive

Search and rescue • The National Park Service spends millions trying to ensure visitors’ safety, but at Zion National Park and other federally managed treasures across Utah there are still many who will fall victim to ...

Editor's note • This is one in an occasional series of stories about The National Park Service, which will mark 100 years on Aug. 25, 2016 — the anniversary of the day President Woodrow Wilson established the federal agency. The service invites the world to experience firsthand why the parks were "America's Best Idea" a century ago and why it will remain so for at least another century.

Zion National Park • Hey, you. Yeah, you. The one wading through the Subway here in Zion National Park. The one who thinks hiking the descent into the Grand Canyon would be fun.

You're a headache for the people at America's so-called best idea. You're the one getting hurt or lost and then rescued in the national parks.

You don't think you're the one behind about 2,600 searches and rescues a year. But, statistically, it's you.

You're the average visitor to the national parks: You've done little to no hiking in your life, probably no hiking in the terrain or elevation you're visiting. You drive to a national park. And you're going to go on one of those hikes you've read about or you saw on one of those travel shows.

Hey, you, don't point over there. Yes, there is an issue with the people over there — those adventurers who get labeled as "extreme sport" enthusiasts. But the problem they are causing is not on the magnitude of the one you are.

"It's inexperienced hikers," said Travis Heggie, an associate professor in the Tourism, Leisure, & Events Planning Program at Bowling Green University. Heggie has written academic papers about searches and rescues in the national parks. "They're inexperienced and don't know the terrain they're going into."

Sure, you don't hurt yourself too badly. It's often just a twisted ankle or knee. Maybe the exercise or elevation is causing you shortness of breath or chest pains. It's all stuff that can be fixed with modern medicine. (Graphic: Which parks had the most searches and rescues in 2014.)

But here's the thing: You're not in the city anymore. You're up a mountain or down a canyon. It'll take at least an hour for the first responders to reach you. More time for them to radio for help carrying you out. The National Park Service has to get some kind of vehicle to the trailhead or call a helicopter to fly you to a hospital.

Take what happened here in Zion on May 20. A 53-year-old man hiking the Subway jumped off a 2-foot-tall rock — yes, 2 feet — and broke a bone in his foot or ankle. It was after dark by the time park staff removed him from the canyon, and it took nine people to carry him out.

And if you hike longer than you said you would or you get lost, the family or friends you left back at the trailhead or campground will call the rangers. They'll start looking for you. All that people power adds up to even more than the $4 million a year the park service reports.

What are you laughing at, young men? Old folks aren't the biggest culprits. Males ages 20 to 29 are the group most often being rescued in the national parks, according to park service data.

People getting lost and hurt are such a problem that the park service is looking for fixes. You should pay attention, too, because, according to research by Heggie and a co-author, 3 percent of those needing search-and-rescue help in the parks die.

Numbers problem • The National Park Service publishes annual, nationwide statistics on searches and rescues in all of the places it manages — parks, monuments, recreation areas and historical sites. Acquiring data on each of those places is more difficult. The park service doesn't voluntarily publish them.

Heggie, who worked for the park service in Washington, D.C., before he entered academia, said the agency is sometimes embarrassed by its search-and-rescue problem.

But with enough prodding, you can get some statistics on individual parks. In the West, Grand Canyon National Park has the most searches and rescues, followed by Lake Mead.

Among the Utah sites managed by the park service, Zion has the most searches and rescues — creating a search-and-rescue triangle between it, the Grand Canyon and Lake Mead. Those of you who know Zion, right about now you're blaming the Subway or Angels Landing. You know, those spots in the park with bumpy footing or cliffs.

And while those places do generate searches and rescues, they are far from alone. Ray O'Neil, a district ranger at Zion, said a good number of the calls for help happen along the Emerald Pools trail.

You know the Emerald Pools. It's the trail with three pools — lower, middle and upper. Each is gradually higher on the trail. You've probably hiked this when you were a kid or with children of your own because it's considered one of Zion's easier trails. The pools look like an oasis growing out of the red rocks.

But you still have to go up and down slopes. There are rocks to climb over if you want a better view of the pools. The trail gets narrow in a couple of spots, and a wrong step can send you tumbling down an embankment. You get the idea.

Get hurt on a so-called easy trail such as Emerald Pools, and it can take six rangers to carry you down, O'Neil said.

When Heggie and a co-author looked at 2005 data to find where park rescues occurred, they found that, in 24 percent of cases, people got into trouble on mountains at an elevation between 5,000 and 15,000 feet. The next most common places of distress were in canyons or rivers (each 13 percent) and then lakes (12 percent).

Towering tab • Once search-and-rescue crews are called, the meter starts running. No, not for you, necessarily. The park service doesn't charge for those costs, though if you need a ride in an ambulance or a medical helicopter, you and your medical insurer will get a bill.

As for the actual search and retrieval, taxpayers foot that tab. In its report for 2014, the park service said it spent $4 million on searches and rescues. That figure covers staffing and equipment costs.

Park service stats show search-and-rescue costs have been relatively steady during the past decade. But Heggie believes searches and rescues are costing the park service a lot more than it's reporting.

He said the agency isn't counting training or the cost of rangers being diverted from whatever they were supposed to be doing.

The rangers and staff at Zion are an example of what the park service faces.

The park has nine permanent and seven seasonal rangers. All of them have some level of search-and-rescue training, O'Neil said. Other employees, such as maintenance workers or clerical staff, can take search-and-rescue training, too, if they want to participate.

For a big incident, like a group stuck in a flash flood, everyone will be deployed. O'Neil will even call sheriff's offices in Washington and Kane counties and ask them to send help.

That also means everyone has to keep their skills fresh. In Zion, a lot of skills can be required.

While the hiker injured on a trail is the most common rescue, rappelling and canyoneering are becoming more popular. And those visitors get stuck in some sticky spots.

The hallway of one of Zion's administrative buildings includes a row of photographs. The pictures depict what looks like a combination of nature photography, the television show "ER" and a trapeze act.

Among the beautiful redrock cliffs and blue skies of Zion are rangers in hard hats and harnesses, dangling in the sky. In some photos, a ranger is strapped to a person he or she is rescuing. In others, a ranger hovers next to a person in a stretcher.

"The most complicated thing that we're doing," O'Neil said, "is in the slot canyons."

Later, in an area of the park known as Pine Creek, O'Neil showed where people rappel down a rock wall to enter the slot canyon underneath the east portal of the Mount Carmel Highway tunnel.

Above where O'Neil stood, a rope hung from a tree. O'Neil said the rope was from an earlier rescue in Pine Creek. A rescuer on the opposite side of the canyon fired the rope out of a cannon — kind of like the T-shirt cannon mascots shoot at sporting events — so rescuers could string a line across the canyon and descend to the people below.

There are no quick searches and rescues in slot canyons.

"If one group has to be rescued," O'Neil said, "that means it's going to be difficult for us to go out on a second significant rescue."

Preventive measures • The park service is trying to help you before you need help.

Near the bottom of Pine Creek, there is a new anchor bolt drilled into the rock. O'Neil said rangers found some canyoneers were hurting themselves when they jumped the last 6 feet down to the bottom of the canyon. The anchor was placed there so the adventurers can rappel the final few feet.

Zion has taken other steps to keep visitors safe. O'Neil said rangers in the park's backcountry program recently started spending half their time in the field and the other half at the desk where hikers get backcountry permits. That ensures the rangers are knowledgeable when people ask questions, O'Neil said, and can warn visitors of any dangers.

On a recent Friday, three brothers and a fourth man prepared to descend into Pine Creek. As they were putting on their gear, a ranger approached and asked to see the permit. The permit was in order, but the ranger also ensured the group had the proper safety equipment. After a few minutes, the canyoneers began their descent.

Heggie calls such proactive measures "preventive search and rescue." The notion is becoming more popular in the park service. He notes initiatives such as signs at the Grand Canyon warning visitors what it will cost if a helicopter has to fly them to a hospital, or the blog started by the search-and-rescue unit at Yosemite. Related article: Angels Landing went from infamy to being a safety success story.

More has to be done, Heggie said. He points to the Old Wagon Trail in Capitol Reef National Park. It's a relatively modest trail in terms of distance and elevation. But, Heggie said, the place is poorly marked and people get lost on it. The trail needs more signs.

Visitors also need more education on what the trails contain and what it takes to traverse them, Heggie said. In an examination of search-and-rescue operations from 2003 through 2006, Heggie and his co-author found errors in judgment were the most common reason people ran into trouble (24 percent), followed by fatigue (20 percent).

While prevention might reduce the number of searches and rescues in the parks, the problem isn't going to be solved.

You are making too many mistakes.

Heggie's research found 22 percent of everyone rescued in the parks were considered "saves." In other words, they would have died without help from the park service.

So be warned: Your best rescuer is you, and the decisions you make can get you into or keep you out of danger.

ncarlisle@sltrib.com

Twitter: @natecarlisle

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