As a conservation officer, search and rescue is unfortunately one of our missions. I remember a case a few years ago when I spotted a missing hunter from the air. He had been out since 7 that morning in late November and lost contact with the rest of his group. By 2 in the afternoon when we received the request for assistance from the Kanabec County Sheriff’s office, the temperature was in the single digits, with wind chills pushing the mercury below zero. After more than four hours of searching, I spotted from my aircraft the lost hunter waving his hat on a stick to signal to me. We radioed the coordinates of the hunter to conservation officers and deputies on the ground, who went by foot and ATV to the hunter’s location. When he saw them approaching, he ran to meet them and hugged one of the other hunters in the search and rescue party. In the end, he was found only 30 minutes before dark, when the temperature would have plummeted.
As conservation officers in the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, we are responsible for everything from ongoing wildlife surveys and forestry research, to enforcing game and fish rules, and of course, search and rescue. To achieve this mission, our division has a fleet of six fixed-winged aircraft and three helicopters, which are essential to our missions.
The majority of the work involves research, which is heavily dependent on aerial observation and photography. Our department tracks the spread of forest disease, in addition to tracking animals of all sizes. In fact, we are currently in the process of completing an annual aerial moose survey, which allows us to track long-term trends, count relative numbers of cows, calves and bulls and better understand the overall local ecology. For a forester to make the necessary observations from the ground for a survey of forest health for instance, it would take an extraordinarily longer amount of time and would not build the same comprehensive picture as seeing the tree canopy from above. Aerial photography really allows us to assemble a mosaic of forest health in a way that nothing else allows. Another key benefit is that we always try to be minimally invasive in our work; aerial observation is the ultimate in “leave no trace.” Despite what many people think, satellite imaging simply cannot replace aerial observation.
Law enforcement is another central component to the job of a conservation officer. We enforce fish and wildlife rules to ensure “fair chase.” Essentially, that means we make sure hunters and fishermen are complying with the law, not hunting or fishing out of season and not exploiting an unfair advantage over the animals being hunted. Aerial observation, in coordination with people on the ground, is a great way to do this more effectively. Deer baiting and hunting at night by motorized vehicle are all easily tracked by aircraft. The pilot can communicate the location to conservation officers on the ground, who can put a stop to that illegal activity.
As stated though, one of the most important part of the job of conservation officers is search and rescue. Every year, hikers, hunters and snowmobilers are reported missing in parks and public lands when they do not return when they are expected. When that happens, we mobilize along with the Minnesota State Patrol or local sheriff’s department, and we use aircraft to do it, as we did in the case of the lost hunter a few years ago. The difference the use of aircraft makes in search and rescue is night and day, and that saves lives. We are able to cover far more ground, even the most rugged terrain, with a bird’s eye view, in far less time. Often the use of an aircraft can minimize the risk to searchers as well.
The fact is that general aviation and small aircraft are vital to the management of public lands and fish and game enforcement. We also work very closely with other agencies, like the Minnesota State Patrol, U.S. Forest Service and National Parks Service, who rely on aviation assets as well. We also hire contractors to fight forest fires by air.
And, the value of general aviation goes far beyond emergency services and land management. Businesses of all sizes, especially in rural areas, rely on general aviation to manage multiple locations or jobsites, or visit suppliers and customers throughout the region. In fact, local airports are often an anchor for local business growth, attracting new employers to locate in the town. Overall, general aviation has an economic impact of $5.3 billion in Minnesota and supports more than 26,000 jobs.
I turn on the news and hear a lot about infrastructure lately, and when it comes to aviation, I know many throughout our state and country think about commercial aviation, roads and bridges. And when it comes to investments, that is where the resources go. But, general aviation and local airports are vitally important, they serve thousands of communities and rural areas throughout our state and nation, and we must remember the contributions of these aircraft and airports as we move forward with these debates and discussions about how to invest in our infrastructure, our communities and our economy as a whole.
Jason Jensen is a conservation officer with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Midwest region director of the Airborne Public Safety Association.