Search & Rescue

The Search & Rescue toolbox is a ‘work in progress’ and represents information available to date on this subject. Contact us to suggest new materials for inclusion.



Stewardship of wilderness includes management of emergencies related to injured or lost visitors. These situations almost always arise without warning and must be addressed quickly and efficiently to prevent further injury or death.

Section 4c of The Wilderness Act of 1964 provides an exception for the use of normally "prohibited uses" such as aircraft, motorized equipment, and mechanical transport when it is determined to be the minimum necessary. For non-emergency situations a Minimum Requirements Analysis is prepared to assess first, the need for action in wilderness and, second, to select the method or tool which has the least impact on the wilderness resource. Use of the "minimum requirements" concept is appropriate during preparation of the Search and Rescue Plans so that all parties involved are following established procedures during the emergency, and applying the minimum requirements concept, without unnecessary delays or risks to victims or rescuers. During an actual emergency where a Search and Rescue Plan does not exist or does not provide the guidance for the actual situation, it is inappropriate to delay a response in order to prepare a MRA. Use the minimum requirements concepts in the decision to authorize normally prohibited uses, and the decision should always err on the side of protecting human life.

The legal jurisdiction on Wilderness lands will dictate agency policy. Agencies with Exclusive Federal Jurisdiction should have established Search and Rescue Plans in place while those with Concurrent, Partial, and Proprietary Jurisdiction should establish cooperative agreements/memorandums of understanding with local agencies responsible for search and rescue operations. Even though a state or local agency has such responsibilities, the federal agency has ultimate responsibility in complying with the enabling legislation and the Wilderness Act, and the approval of 4(c) uses in the wilderness.


Wilderness Act

Section 4(c) Except as specifically provided for in this Act, and subject to existing private rights, there shall be no commercial enterprise and no permanent road within any wilderness area designated by this Act and except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act (including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area), there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.

The language in the Wilderness Act of 1964 identifies measures necessary for addressing human health and safety emergencies as one of the special provisions for which otherwise prohibited activities can be authorized. The prohibited uses that apply to search and rescue operations typically include landing of aircraft, use of motor vehicles (including snowmobiles, and possibly use of motorized equipment such as chainsaws.

Minimum Requirements for Search and Rescue Operations

Once an emergency situation involving the health and safety of people in the wilderness is reported it is too late to prepare a detailed analysis to determine if helicopters, snowmobiles, motorboats, or other motorized equipment should be authorized. The Minimum Requirements Decision Guide (MRDG) is not suitable for use in an emergency situation. Instead, utilize the Minimum Requirements concept (as required by Section 4 c of The Wilderness Act of 1964) and the MRDG to help plan strategies and tactics for the Wilderness Search and Rescue Plan and/or agreements with state, county and other responsible organizations. The goal is to achieve a level of understanding and compliance with the Section 4c provisions that gets everyone involved with the emergency focused on doing what's needed for the victims, providing safe conditions for rescuers, and minimizing impacts on the wilderness resource.

Four Cornerstones of Wilderness Stewardship

(from Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center, 2003)

The Fourth Cornerstone of Wilderness Stewardship is particularly relevant for planning and management of Search and Rescue operations in wilderness.

  1. Manage wilderness as a whole.
  2. Preserve wildness and natural conditions.
  3. Protect wilderness benefits.
  4. Provide and use the minimum necessary.

How and why this is important is two-fold. First, it prompts land managers to work with SAR agencies to proactively develop SAR Plans and MOUs. This allows land manager to more effectively practice the first three of the Cornerstones as outlined above. Second, this proactive work creates more communication and efficiency when faced with an emergent SAR. This helps ensure the last Cornerstone is discussed early on, before any SARs and is considered when a SAR does happen.

For example, say XYZ Forest has developed an MOU with ABC SAR Director for operations in Big Wilderness. The MOU outlines agency responsibilities, support, and training. The Lost Hiker SAR begins with a call for a severely injured hiker in Big River Wilderness. The SAR Leader begins planning for the SAR, contacts XYZ Forest, and takes into account the MOU with the Forest. At the conclusion of the incident the SAR Leader and Forest talk to review specific elements outlined in the MOU.

Wilderness Character

Wilderness character is comprised of the following qualities that exist when an area is designated Wilderness;

  • untrammeled -- ecological systems unhindered and free from intentional human control or manipulation,
  • natural -- ecological systems free from the effects of modern civilization,
  • undeveloped -- without permanent improvements or human habitation, and
  • Solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation -- the opportunity for people to experience wilderness.
  • Other Features of Value -- features unique to the wilderness that are integral to its wilderness values

Wilderness character is comprised of biophysical and experiential elements that encompass both tangible and intangible aspects of a given area. It is these elements and their relationships that together are an area's Wilderness Character. [1]

Establishing strong working relationships between land managers responsible for Wilderness and local SAR groups is critical. Search and rescue (SAR) operations in Wilderness will typically have impacts on Wilderness Character. It is important for those managing SAR operations to proactively consider potential impacts to wilderness character and address them in when developing their SAR Plan and MOUs. Annual meetings and Wilderness awareness trainings with local SAR providers are a best practice for building strong working relationships to protect Wilderness Character.

[1] P. Landres, et. al., Keeping It Wild 2 An Updated Interagency Strategy to Monitor Trends in Wilderness Character Across the National Wilderness Preservation System. United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, General Technical Report RMRS-GTR-340, October 2015.

Best Practices

In many cases Federal Land Management Agencies do not have the primary responsibilities for Search and Rescue on agency administered lands, including wilderness areas In other cases where the Federal Land Management Agency does have primary responsibility, they often rely on assistance from county, state, military, and volunteer rescue group partners. It is incumbent on Land Managers to develop and foster strong working relationships with all these groups no matter who has the primary responsibility Federal Land Managers have specific local knowledge, knowledge of agency resources, and have management responsibilities that need to be considered during SAR operations Best Management Practices in Wilderness SAR operations center around planning ahead (pre-planning) and building strong inter-agency relationships.

Agencies need to plan for SAR activities by;

  • Identifying Agency SAR responsibilities, resources, and capabilities
  • Establishing a unit SAR Plan outlining responsibilities, agency resources, and capabilities in order to manage and conduct, or assist in, SAR operations
  • Identifying, and keeping current, points of contact to insure open and frequent communications between Agencies
  • Establishing working relationships, to include establishment of agreements and/or memorandums of understanding (MOU), with local Agencies
  • Coordinating annual, if not more frequent, wilderness stewardship training for Agency and partner personnel in SAR operations. Training should discuss ho techniques are or are not compatible with 4(c) prohibitions, and ask SAR personnel to identify means by which they can further minimize 4(c)
  • Conducting annual, or more frequent, meetings to review the SAR Plan, MOU, or agreement. The meeting agenda should include updating agreements as agreed upon, reviewing past SAR events to glean any lessons learned, discuss "what-if" situations, and commit to an Annual Work Plan.
  • Consider methods of educating the public of known hazards to reduce the number of SAR operations, typically known as Preventative Search and Rescue (PSAR).