The size and scope of federal land holdings in this country — including national parks, monuments and more — is so vast that people can venture into them and literally disappear. Note the case of Dale Stehling, who went for a hike in Mesa Verde circa June 2013 and hasn't been seen since. Yet there's currently no national database for missing persons — and a Regis University instructor would like to change that.
According to The Mancos Times, Stehling and his wife, Denean, came to Colorado from their home in Goliad, Texas, to take part in what's described as an "'adult only' 21 day vacation visiting national parks." On June 9, 2013, they were at Mesa Verde for day four of the tour, having traveled there from Four Corners.
That's when Dale told Denean that he was heading off on a hike to the Spruce Tree House ruin, an attraction whose path is reportedly steep but just a quarter-mile long. But he didn't return, and after two hours, Denean raised an alarm, setting off a two-week search that included as many as sixty rescuers, plus helicopters, two dog teams and rope teams that rappelled off cliffs in the vicinity.
These efforts came up empty, and since then, there have been no developments in the case — and no way to track it, since there isn't a federal database that allows access to information about people missing on federal lands.
To Heidi Streetman, who conducts graduate teacher-training courses and classes on research methods at Regis, and also teaches at the University of Colorado Denver's ESL Academy, the need for such a resource is clear. As such, she's created a petition entitled "Make the Department of Interior Accountable for Persons Missing in Our National Parks & Forests."
"I started this petition because there is no legal requirement that federal records be kept of the circumstances surrounding a person's disappearance, whether or not remains or belongings are recovered, or if a person is located alive and well," Streetman writes via e-mail. "This should all be a matter of public record, but it is not. When researchers or family members request records that are sometimes kept, land administrators have stymied requests, claiming it would cost upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce such records, due to manpower issues and costs of copies. This is in spite of Freedom of Information Act guarantees that federal records are open to the public.
"If a searchable public database of those missing on federal land is required to be kept, by our government, I am hoping it will raise awareness of who is missing and where," she adds. "It will encourage those with skills to do so, to continue searching for those missing. It will provide the public with information about areas they may be visiting so they can make intelligent choices about their own safety and well-being. Hot spots where many people are missing can be identified and investigated, and families of the missing can have the solace of knowing that others are aware of and possibly still searching for their loved ones."
Streetman didn't launch the petition because of a personal connection to someone who's missing, although she notes that a former classmate committed suicide in the Arizona desert and his remains have never been found. She became interested in the issue "after reading several books on folks missing in the Smoky Mountains, plus the Bennington Triangle area of Vermont, and David Paulides' Missing 411 series. I was especially touched by cases where families do not get any answers or closure.
"Every summer, my family spent most months camping out in parks, Mexico to Canada, all over the U.S., and sometimes, in very remote places. It astounds me that there is no federal accountability, and that if the missing are not recovered, records are not required to be kept and made available to people who might later search for the missing or want to learn about the cases."
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After citing the Dale Stehling disappearance, she adds, "Since so much of this state is about enjoying the great outdoors, I should think keeping track of folks and keeping people safe would be a priority."
At this writing, the petition has more than 3,200 signatures toward a goal of 4,000. To access it, click here. And if you have any information about Dale Stehling, you're encouraged to phone National Park Service dispatch at 970-529-4622.
Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.