County SAR in jeopardy with Rural Fund debate

By RAELYNN RICARTE

News staff writer

February 10, 2007

Ninety-five percent of Hood River County’s search and rescue operations take place in the Mount Hood National Forest.

But federal funding to train volunteers for treacherous high-elevation rescues — and provide them with needed equipment — has expired.

Sheriff Joe Wampler said the loss of $50,000-$131,000 per year will eventually hurt his ability to mount a rapid response. He said although the county now has enough manpower and support vehicles, a lack of ongoing maintenance will eventually take a toll.

He believes that Congress has an obligation to reauthorize the compensation to counties for logging cutbacks on federal lands. Wampler said that money is critical to Hood River County since 61 percent of its land mass sits within the Mount Hood National Forest. And Wilderness areas are marketed internationally for recreation — drawing millions annually to the slopes.

In addition, he said the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area also attracts several million tourists each year. Wampler said some of these individuals also end up getting injured or lost while hiking, or stranded while boating.

“We are responsible for emergency management but it’s an unfunded mandate at this point,” said Wampler. “Most of the people we end up looking for are from the Portland-metro area since they can get a challenge close to home.”

He said the rugged terrain of Mount Hood and the Gorge can provide spectacular vistas — and plenty of dangers as well.

Wampler said the county’s inventory of vehicles — including a snow cat and three search planes — proved invaluable when three climbers from out of state went missing in December. He said volunteers were transported with relative ease to the base camp at Cloud Cap Inn. He also had an extra generator on hand to replace the one that broke down at the outpost, located at the 6,000 foot elevation.

“We just simply would not be able to have the SAR program that we have now without this money,” said Wampler.

Chief Deputy Jerry Brown, the sheriff’s number cruncher, said the recent high profile search drained $27,000 from the line item dedicated to those operations. And that created a deficit of $13,000 in that account — money that cannot be replaced since the county payments lapsed at the end of 2006.

“There are always going to be searches but our ability to get there may become more difficult,” said Brown. “We’re still going to go but it could get down to us walking instead of riding.”

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden underscored the plight of Hood River County’s SAR program in his speech on the House floor this week.

On Tuesday, he took the podium to address the “dire consequences” of Congress not reauthorizing the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act.

“Hood River County, Oregon, is my home and hosts two Oregon icons: Mount Hood and the powerful Columbia River, both attractions for outdoor recreation and the dangers that come with them,” said Walden.

“Surely, you remember the December search for the mountain climbers on Mount Hood? This event unfolded just miles from my hometown.

“The county paid for this rescue and recovery effort entirely with County Payments funds. This included the airplanes, snowcats, and equipment for volunteers, CB radios, and medical supplies.”

Walden then reminded his colleagues that the federal government had an obligation to “share the cost” for these operations. Each day until Feb. 16, he is providing one-minute glimpses into the losses that 18 of the 20 counties in his Second Congressional District will face without an extension of the county payments law for at least seven more years.

Although the majority of this funding is dedicated toward road maintenance and school programs, Walden said it also can be used for search and rescue, forest health projects, and rural health needs.

Hood River County stands to lose $2.9 million if Congress does not sign off on House Resolution 17. Walden and U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore, brought the bill forward just after the turn of the year.

Walden is feeling hopeful that “raising a ruckus” over the issue is gaining support. Since beginning the series of speeches in late January, 48 more members of Congress have agreed to co-sponsor the bill.

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