Facebook Twitter

Opinion: Lost in Utah’s national parks? Federal land should have federal funding for search and rescue

Local law enforcement rescues tourists who get lost in Utah’s national parks but get no tax benefits from the federal land. Rep. Chris Stewart has a solution for federal funding to aid search and rescue efforts

SHARE Opinion: Lost in Utah’s national parks? Federal land should have federal funding for search and rescue

A Department of Public Safety helicopter flies down and out of Little Cottonwood Canyon after joining Salt Lake County Search and Rescue in recovering the body of a fallen hiker in near O’Sullivan Peak on Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Utah’s rural communities have been footing the federal government’s bill for too long. How can our counties — with such low tax bases and such high visitation numbers — be expected to pay for countless costly search and rescue missions?

It’s well past time to right this wrong, and my bipartisan legislation will do just that.

Utah’s visitor-to-resident ratio demands a more thoughtful, effective system to support counties that are burdened with frequent search and rescue operations. Utah has a population of about 3.3 million people. Last year, our five National Parks reported over 11 million visitors — almost four times more than our state’s entire population.

The vast majority of these tourists are visiting Utah’s spectacular national parks, and for that we are grateful. Tourism is a crucial aspect of Utah’s economy, and we want to share our state’s great beauty with anyone and everyone possible.

But national parks and monuments are owned by the federal government and therefore don’t contribute to the local tax base. This has created a significant imbalance for some of our more rural counties.

Utah is made up of almost 53 million acres, and the federal government owns over 66% of it. In Garfield County, it’s even more dramatic — the federal government owns nearly 95% of the land, yet the county’s nine deputies are responsible for keeping its residents and visitors safe.

If the county cannot financially benefit from taxing this federal land, why is local law enforcement still financially responsible for rescuing those countless tourists who get lost in it?

The Utah Sheriffs’ Association recently wrote a letter to Congress. The letter both supports my legislation and outlines the significance of this problem.

“We strive each day to assist in any type of operation or task, especially when a person’s life is at stake and a rescue is necessary,” the letter reads. “Over the past 20 years we have seen an explosion of visitors to our state and, with that, a concurrent explosion of search and rescue missions — many of them ‘life and death scenarios.’ Our sheriffs and the citizens of their respective counties simply cannot afford the resources necessary to include helicopters and the special equipment required to locate visitors who find themselves lost or injured within the federal government’s 35 million acres.”

I was speaking with a sheriff just last week who told me a story that’s all too common for Utah’s law enforcement. A woman went missing deep in one of our national monuments. Thankfully, she was found by a search and rescue team. But she was found disoriented, dehydrated and 25 miles from her last known location with no chance of making it out on her own.

We have Utah’s incredible officers — and one of the state’s only three helicopters — to thank for this lifesaving rescue. But don’t you think these everyday heroes, as well as those who need rescuing, deserve the best equipment and resources possible when their lives are on the line? And don’t you think these everyday heroes, as they risk their lives to save people on federal land, deserve the federal government’s financial support?

The fate of tourists and law enforcement shouldn’t rely on the capability of three helicopters covering 35 million acres of dangerous terrain. My legislation will ensure that is never again the case.

The Public Lands Search and Rescue Act of 2022 will create a grant program to assist states with the costs of buying, leasing and maintaining lifesaving search and rescue equipment. These grants can cover up to 75% of the equipment’s cost, and the grantee will need to cover the other 25%.

This arrangement will offer some much-needed relief for rural law enforcement stretched thin by remote search and rescue operations on federal land, and it may very well save lives. My friend Greg Miles, chair of the Natural Resource and Public Lands Committee, said, “A person’s call for help should not be a decision of cost when their life is threatened.”

This is a commonsense, bipartisan solution to a lifesaving problem. And as your proud representative, I will not stop fighting until President Joe Biden signs this bill into law.

Republican Rep. Chris Stewart represents Utah’s 2nd Congressional District.