San Bernardino County sheriff hopes to reduce costs of Mount Baldy search-and-rescues

Rob McMillan Image
Friday, August 11, 2023
Mount Baldy rescues on federal land costly for sheriff's department
The San Bernardino County sheriff's department is hoping that new measures will help protect hikers and mountain climbers from going missing.

MOUNT BALDY, Calif. (KABC) -- The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department is seeking assistance from federal partners in an attempt to reduce the number of search and rescue operations it needs to conduct - and pay for - on Mount Baldy.

The agency is hoping for additional reimbursement for operations on federal land - but it is also hoping to educate hikers about the dangers of taking on the mountain in treacherous conditions.

Since 2020, the sheriff's department said it has assisted in more than 100 search and rescue operations on Mount Baldy. While many of those rescue operations have been successful, there have also been 10 deaths during that time frame.

"Sheriff Shannon Dicus is very concerned about the community, and them being injured, and the deaths involved that are happening up in Mount Baldy," said Deputy Chief John Walker with the sheriff's department.

Walker said that several search-and-rescue efforts have cost San Bernardino County more than $3 million since 2020. Many of those rescues have occurred not on San Bernardino County territory, but federal land.

"It's a moral obligation to make sure we're there to take care of the community although it's not our area," said Walker.

He said they have received some reimbursement from the federal government for those rescue efforts.

"We have received some reimbursement, but a very small amount."

Walker referenced state legislation proposed last year that would have put some of the financial responsibility for rescues on the individuals who require emergency assistance, but said that legislation stalled.

Another option would be to require hikers and mountain climbers to obtain proper permitting before climbing Mount Baldy. The goal would be to properly educate hikers before they attempt to climb Mount Baldy and theoretically ensure they have proper hiking and climbing gear.

"You look at the Mount Whitney portal, they use a permit process," said Walker. "We're not trying to prevent people from utilizing the lands, we're trying to make a safer avenue to ensure those who are going up are properly skilled."

That would also require more funding, as well as additional U.S. Forest Service personnel to enforce the permitting process.

The U.S. Forest Service released a statement in response to the San Bernardino County sheriff's department's concerns.

"The Angeles National Forest, as well as all of the USDA Forest Service, has been and continues to be committed to working with adjacent agencies and the public to promote safe and enjoyable outdoor recreation," said U.S. Forest Service public affairs officer Dana Dierkes.

"The primary role of the Forest Service in search and rescue is to develop and maintain strong working relationships with state leadership. Whichever state, county, or local agency the state government has mandated responsible, that is the agency with primary responsibility for search and rescue activities on National Forests within that particular state.

"In summary, the Forest Service does not have statutory or appropriations authority to reimburse for search and rescue activities. The Forest Service does enter into cooperative law enforcement reimbursement agreements for law enforcement services, but these reimbursements are not expected to supplant state or local obligations. The Forest Service will continue to work with the State of California and San Bernardino County, as with all of our partners, in pursuit of solutions to help address funding issues associated with search and rescue activities."

The San Bernardino county sheriff's department has also reached out to Rep. Judy Chu (D-Pasadena) in an attempt to seek a federal solution. Chu's office also provided Eyewitness News with a statement in response to the sheriff's department.

"I'm thankful for the Sheriff's letter last week explaining his concerns, and I fully share his commitment to ensuring the Forest Service has the resources it needs to protect public safety in the mountains," said Chu. "My office and I are evaluating possible next steps, and we look forward to working with the Sheriff and Forest Service to determine a path forward."