Outdoors

Missing Persons on Public Land: New Bill Eight Years in the Making

Joe Keller's remains were found in 2016, while Dale Stehling was positively identified in 2020. Both went missing on fderal land.
Joe Keller's remains were found in 2016, while Dale Stehling was positively identified in 2020. Both went missing on fderal land. Family photo via NBC News/Family photo via The Journal
Jacob Cyr disappeared in Routt National Forest after traveling to the area to attend the fiftieth annual Rainbow Family gathering over the Fourth of July weekend, and while testing is being done on human remains found in the area earlier this month, the Iowa man remains officially missing — and he's not alone. By one estimate, at least 1,600 people have vanished on public land in this country, with many of the disappearances in Colorado.

Joe Keller and Dale Stehling
 were two of them. Keller's remains were formally identified in 2016, a year after he was lost on federal land in the state. Stehling disappeared in 2013; his remains were identified in 2020.

Despite the prevalence of such incidents, however, the U.S. government has no central database of information about missing persons on public lands. But last week, Representative Joe Neguse, the Democrat who represents Colorado's 2nd Congressional District, took a major step in changing that.

With Republican Representative Tim Burchett of Tennessee, Neguse co-sponsored the Tracking and Reporting Absent Community-members Everywhere (TRACE) Act, which is intended to "improve information sharing efforts for missing persons on federal lands by making a series of improvements to the existing National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) database, including requiring the Department of Justice...to include additional categories to record cases in which the person went missing on federal lands, such as descriptions of search efforts, cause of death (if remains are found), ongoing search efforts, descriptions of any belongings found and location details."

The proposal would not exist were it not for the advocacy efforts of Heidi Streetman, an educator with stints at the Community College of Denver and Regis University, who has been pushing for improvements in the procedures surrounding disappearances on public land for years. Along the way, she secured the support of Montana's Dave Paulides, a former police officer turned author and executive producer of the series Missing 411, whose Twitter account intro says that he's "dedicated to understanding the complexity and issues of searching, rescuing and researching people missing in the wild."

"I had become interested in missing-persons cases when I saw the toll Natalee Holloway's unresolved case had on her family," says Streetman, referring to the eighteen-year-old who disappeared in the Caribbean in 2005 and whose remains have never been found. Streetman subsequently "began reading books on missing cases in national parks. A friend alerted me to Dave Paulides's work, and I began reading his books. What struck me, time and again, was that there was very sketchy accountability by the national parks and outright stonewalling of families or the public trying to get information on the missing."

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Heidi Streetman has been advocating for the creation of a database of missing persons on public land for the better part of a decade.
In 2013, Streetman continues, "I emailed Dave Paulides and suggested a petition to demand federal accountability for the missing. A year later, there was still no petition, so I asked Dave if he thought it was a good idea for me go ahead and float one."

The result was the August 2014 petition "Make the Department of the Interior Accountable for Persons Missing in Our National Parks & Forests," which Paulides helped promote — and by 2017, it had attracted more than 10,000 signatures.

After that benchmark was reached, Streetman took the petition to the local office of Senator Michael Bennet, and in March 2018, she met with one of his community representatives. The petition was subsequently forwarded to Bennet staffers in Washington, D.C., who "verified signatures and began researching the issue," Streetman explains. "But it stalled there for two years."

Meanwhile, Streetman says, "Joe Neguse became our congressional representative here. I went to a town hall of his and spoke with his communications director, Jill Grano, and briefly with Representative Neguse. ... When it became clear Senator Bennet's office was not moving ahead on the issue, I communicated this to Representative Neguse's office. It was a better fit to Representative Neguse's work, because he was heading the congressional committee on public lands."

Meanwhile, Paulides got Burchett interested in the issue, too. "His office video-conferenced with Dave and me separately and worked with Representative Neguse's office to draft the legislation," Streetman recalls.

Although she knew a measure was in the works "since Dave Paulides and I worked with the team at Representative Neguse's office on drafts of it last spring," Streetman says, there was radio silence over the summer. But that changed on September 16, when "Abbie Callahan at Representative Neguse's office emailed the bill. ... This caught me by surprise, and as delighted as I am, it is still sinking in.

"The good stuff in the bill is it will be required that those missing on federal lands be registered by the various administrative agencies in the NAMUS database. The cases will be designated as being missing on federal lands — national parks, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife and Department of Defense lands," she notes. "Additional fields will be added to the NAMUS database to allow entry of specifics of each missing case, such as the activity underway when the person went missing, locale/area where they were thought to be, rescue/recovery efforts, cause of death if remains are recovered, items thought to be with the person and/or recovered. Leadership at the Department of the Interior, the USDA, which oversees the U.S. Forest Service, BLM, Fish and Wildlife and DOD will be presented information annually about the numbers of cases on their respective lands. This will hopefully foster more dialogue and new approaches to addressing issues surrounding the missing."

Streetman does see some shortcomings, though: "I would have liked to see previous cases included. In other words, those who went missing in past decades may not be included. If they are in NAMUS, it does not seem that their entries will be updated to contain the fields added for the future entries of the missing on federal lands. I had wanted the entries to be permanent and undeletable. Instead, there will be archiving of cases, in keeping with the way the NAMUS database is maintained. This means they will still be searchable, though, and we need transparency of all cases simultaneously to ascertain sheer numbers and basic factors underlying the phenomena."

In 2018, she emphasizes, "the NAMUS database was expanded to include DNA information, such as identifying John and Jane Does recovered by law enforcement, nationwide, as Native American. This is particularly important for Native American communities seeking to recover people. So while the NAMUS database is by no means complete, it is being improved by the National Institute of Justice as better understanding is achieved regarding gaps in our information. It can be a powerful tool for law enforcement and for the public."

Meanwhile, Streetman says, "I'm over the moon that progress is being made and accountability is growing in the consciousness and conscience of our institutions. Hopefully, this will lead to a better understanding of circumstances under which people tend to go missing, so that we can better prevent this from happening."

Just over eight years passed between the launch of the petition and the introduction of legislation, and Streetman insists on sharing the credit. "It is the result of many different people's efforts, from petition signers to the hardworking staff who penned the legislation," she says. "It's wonderful. Everyone who had a hand in it made it happen. I'm grateful that we are further along on this journey of accountability, and look forward to seeing how accountability will evolve in the future — because every missing person matters."

Click to read the TRACE Act proposal and the 2021 Heidi Streetman-authored brief "Information Relevant to the Establishment of a National Database of Those Missing on Federal Lands."
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts