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There Are Over 1,600 People Missing On Public Land. Here’s An Attempt to Stop This.

Every year, millions of people take advantage of public lands for camping, hiking, and other recreational activities. However, while most return home safely, that’s not always the case. There’s a growing unofficial list of more than 1,600 people missing while on public lands. With friends, family, and other loved ones searching for answers, many demand that officials do something about the growing number of people vanishing on public lands.

Luckily, we’re happy to report that this massive list is finally getting the attention it deserves from the federal government. Let’s dive in and see what they’re doing about it!

Who Was Joe Keller?

Joe Keller was a nineteen-year-old from Cleveland, Tennessee, visiting Conejos County’s Rainbow Trout Ranch in July 2015. Joe and one of his friends went out for a jog but eventually separated. When his friend returned without Joe, speculation of foul play was one of the possible explanations. There were few clues for detectives to work with, and they suspended the search after a month.

Almost a year later, a hiker was exploring Conejos Canyon and spotted what appeared to be human remains. Authorities flocked to the scene and picked up the investigation. Unfortunately, the remains were those of Joe Keller. While his friends and family knew what happened to Joe, the hole left in his absence will never heal.

Who Was Dale ­Stehling?

Dale Stehling has a similar story to Joe Keller. However, Dale set out on a hike in Mesa Verde National Park on June 9, 2013, and no one saw him alive again. Dale was hiking to the Spruce Tree House ruin, which has a very steep trail that is only a quarter-mile long. 

After a couple of hours of waiting for Dale to return, his wife, Denean, began to question his whereabouts. This started a two-week search and rescue mission that included 60 rescuers, multiple helicopters, two canine teams, and a team of rope experts that rappelled down the cliffs and into the valley below.

In mid-September 2020, Mesa Verde National Park authorities received an anonymous tip that led them to the remains of Dale Stehling. The location of Dale’s body was never made public, but they did state he was in a very remote section of the park off-limits to guests. The discovery of Dale’s body provided many unanswerable questions for national park enthusiasts, and the authorities didn’t answer any of them.

Pro Tip: If you’re looking for some solitude, find out Is Solo Camping Safe?

Woman hiking solo on public land
Every year people sadly go missing on public lands.

How Many People Have Gone Missing On America’s Public Lands?

The best estimate of how many people are missing on America’s public lands is roughly 1,600. There is currently no record or database of these disappearances, so it’s nearly impossible to keep track of them. While authorities find approximately 90% of the more than 600,000 missing people yearly, 10% remain lost.

How Is the Search for Missing Persons On Public Land Different From the Search in Municipalities?

When a person goes missing in a local municipality, the local police department will begin the search. They’ll typically receive assistance from the county, state, and even federal law enforcement agencies. If they suspect foul play in the disappearance, the state’s bureau of investigation can involve itself. However, many agencies drag their feet until the investigation becomes criminal.

The search is entirely different if you disappear on many public lands out west. The county sheriff is now responsible for the search. Robert Koester, the author of Lost Person Behavior, says, “There are no federal standards for terrestrial search and rescue. Very few states have standards. A missing person is a local problem.” 

Unfortunately, depending on the locals in the search party, they may not be as motivated or capable of locating you. You could have a very slim chance of survival in understaffed public lands. It’s best to be as self-sufficient as possible and avoid a dangerous situation.

Solo hiking while lost on public land
Sign the online petition to create awareness for the people missing on public lands.

What Is the Missing 411 Series?

The Missing 411 series is David Paulides’ project to help find those who go missing on public lands. David spent time in law enforcement before founding the North American Bigfoot Search and the CanAm Missing Project. His interest in the mysterious disappearances of so many people on public lands led him to self-publish six volumes of his Missing 411 Series. The popular book series is now a documentary available to stream on Hulu.

Why Is There a Petition for a National, Publicly Accessible Registry?

While it may sound common sense, there’s currently no registry or database containing the names of those who have gone missing on public lands. Heidi Streetman started an online petition to help ignite awareness and change how authorities handle missing persons cases on public lands.

If an individual goes missing on public lands, nothing requires the search parties to maintain records regarding the event. When individuals seeking information about disappearances reach out for information, they’re often met with resistance, red tape, and hefty fees to access the information. Heidi, and nearly 13,000 signatures on the petition, want to change that.

Pro Tip: Before heading out on your own adventure, check out these 5 Reasons to Avoid Solo Camping.

Holding the Department Of The Interior Accountable: Will It Work?

Holding the Department of the Interior accountable is one of the most significant steps toward increasing safety on public lands. Not keeping an organized database or records of the many individuals who disappear on public lands is reckless. While this legislation hopes to reduce the red tape and manage the information, the government typically doesn’t move very fast. It could be years before we see any noticeable change. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the fight and effort to make public lands safer.

Do you think the petition will help? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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