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Senate backs wilderness search training

April 23, 2012
By MICHAEL VIRTANEN - Associated Press Writer , The Associated Press

ALBANY - State forest rangers would train more volunteers to help with search-and-rescue operations under a bill approved by the New York Senate, following unsuccessful searches for two young men in the central Adirondacks.

Sen. Betty Little, the bill's sponsor, said when someone disappears in a remote area, it's crucial to have "as many trained eyes and ears on the ground as possible.

"There's a real method to search for someone in the woods," the Republican from Queensbury said. "Forest rangers would provide some training."

Article Photos

State Department of Environmental Conservation Forest Ranger David Russell, left, gives a search assignment to a group of volunteers who assisted in the search for missing teen Colin Gillis March 12 in Piercefield.
(Enterprise file photo — Jessica Collier)

When Colin Gillis went missing last month, about 1,000 people turned out to look for him. The 18-year-old college student, home on spring break from SUNY Brockport, was last seen March 11 along Route 3 in Tupper Lake after a party.

Wesley Wamsganz of Saranac Lake disappeared in 2010 after leaving his job Nov. 20 at a Lake Placid diner and heading to the Adirondak Loj at the edge of the High Peaks backcountry. Witnesses reported seeing the 22-year-old in the parking lot, and his jacket was found the next night. But rangers, police and three-dozen volunteers had no luck finding him.

Little's bill would establish a program in which the Department of Environmental Conservation trains and credentials volunteers for searches "in the wild, remote and forested areas of the state." The bill doesn't authorize any funding. But Little said she believes rangers would be willing to conduct the training as part of their current jobs.

A similar measure is pending in the Assembly.

Rangers conduct more than 200 search-and-rescue operations each year in New York's backwoods, most ending with hikers or campers found within hours. The agency has nine open missing-person cases in the region dating to 1971.

"We don't consider it closed until we find them," DEC spokesman David Winchell said. "If there are any new clues somehow indicating there might be something there, we'll go in and follow up on that and search a particular area."

The DEC has 112 forest rangers, 20 fewer than a decade ago, agency spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said. It works with volunteer search-and-rescue groups in the Adirondacks and holds training sessions in areas where it has "limited continuous" searches when people have been missing for a long time.

A dozen people have disappeared in the mostly undeveloped 6 million acre Adirondack Park over the past half-century. Peter Bronski chronicled several in his 2008 book "At the Mercy of the Mountains," starting in 1951 with E.F. Crumley's disappearance on a fishing and camping trip. His remains were accidentally discovered six years later.



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