(Photo: an unpaid mountain rescue volunteer battles the elements on the way to a successful, and cost-free, rescue at 9,000' on Mt. Hood, Oregon.)
(Caveat: the following post is purely my own opinion; I'm not speaking for any official rescue unit, the Mountain Rescue Association of America, or anyone else. Just me. Okay?)
I'm shocked, shocked to report that Bill O'Reilly might be about to fudge the truth tonight. As some of you know, in addition to my full-time job (hah!) writing VichyDems, I also am a mountain rescue volunteer in the Pacific Northwest. According to an email I just got from a colleague, O'Reilly's Fox News Channel program tonight will debate the question, "Shouldn't the federal government close all trails and backcountry areas on Federal land in winter, so that the government doesn't have to pay for expensive rescues?"
This is a recurrent conservative meme, unfortunately believed by most of the public: that rescues, especially of mountaineers, incur huge costs to the federal government. And it's flat-ass wrong. Here's why:
In the last month, I've searched (unsuccessfully, I'm sad to say) for a lost child at Crater Lake National Park (who wandered away from his father as they played near a public, not "backcountry", road). I've also searched for James Kim, the online editor who was trying to find help for his family after their Saab got stuck on an Oregon logging road after they accidentally turned off a regular road in a wild but not "backcountry" area (we found him too late). Other members of my two mountain rescue units have been searching for three climbers who are currently stranded on Mt. Hood (we're holding out hope, and praying the weather will break so we can search higher up), and for two snowmobilers near Mt. Bachelor (a private ski resort leased from the federal government; they found one dead, one alive, and rescued him successfully).
Of these four incidents, only one involved mountaineers. Only one involved truly backcountry federal land (the others were either not on federal land, or were on federal land leased to private enterprises like a ski resort, and/or were accessed by regular, mapped highways). Although many people blame "mountain climbers" for racking up rescue costs, only one of these incidents involved mountaineers -- but mountaineers were called in as volunteers to assist in all four; in other words, the mountaineering community more than pulls its weight.
Ignored by folks like O'Reilly is the fact that the federal government normally isn't involved in mountain rescues even on federal land (each county sheriff has that responsibility). Most rescues are of people in cars, snowmobilers, lost hunters and mushroom pickers, and other non-mountaineers -- sometimes even of O'Reilly viewers!
Most importantly, almost all the legwork is done by volunteers. The main "federal cost" is the occasional helicopter from the Air National Guard or the Air Force Reserve -- and those folks tell me that assisting in civilian rescues, especially in inclement weather at high elevations, is a huge part of their training. There's no way that the 1042nd air rescue wing based at Salem, OR could do mountain rescues and evacuations of soldiers in Afghanistan (as they've done) if they hadn't "practiced" in civilian rescues in the Oregon Cascades in conjunction with the local sheriffs and innumerable volunteers, from dog trackers to snowmobile clubs to mountain rescue units.
So the "rescue costs" question is a red herring, and I hope Media Matters, Atrios or someone else more prominent than me refutes O'Reilly if he blows this one, as they do so well when he tells fibs about more political matters.
There. I feel better now having prebutted the myths I'm sure will be told on Fox tonight.
12.14.20006 P.S.: There are some good photos showing the route the climbers took (Cooper Spur) here, here, here, and here. Check the comments for more discussion of this. Thanks to everyone who's visiting and worrying about the climbers on Hood!!
12.19.2006 update: My condolences to the families, following the discovery of Kelly James' body and evidence suggesting the other two climbers may have fallen to their deaths. Climbing is a wonderful, but sometimes dangerous, sport, and I can only trust that the adventurous lives these men lived were so full of challenge and beauty that, even cut short, they were fuller than the lives of the Barc-a-lounger crowd. In that regard, I'll quote former Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas, who answers the critics who ask, why do people climb mountains?
"[T]he spirit of adventure... is a measure of the vitality of both nations and men. A people who climb the ridges and sleep under the stars in high mountain meadows, who enter the forest and scale the peaks, who explore glaciers and walk ridges buried deep in snow -- these people will give their country some of the indomitable spirit of the mountains." Douglas, Of Men and Mountains, p. 328.
Also, for those who are interested, here's a nice post containing an audioclip of Bill O'Reilly's idiocy on this topic.
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