Craters staff gets permission to continue search for missing Boise hiker

kterhune@idahostatesman.comOctober 2, 2013 

Searchers, visible as small orange and yellow dots, scoured the Craters of the Moon National Monument in September. Nine monument employees have received an exemption from government-mandated furloughs to continue the search for Jo Elliott-Blakeslee.

CRATERS OF THE MOON NATIONAL MONUMENT

As the government shutdown grinds into its second day and federally funded parks across America are shuttered, activity will continue at one national monument.

The Craters of the Moon National Monument was granted an exemption that will allow 10 of its staff to continue the search for Dr. Jo Elliott-Blakeslee, 63, who went missing in the park Sept. 19.

Originally, only three employees were told they could remain at work to take care of necessary functions during a government-ordered furlough. However, exemptions were granted because the monument was conducting an emergency search, Plan Section Chief John Apel said Wednesday.

Ten employees volunteered to continue working through their furlough, and were cleared by the government to continue the search.

Because of the furlough, none of the park staff members are being paid for their work. Apel said that Congress may later vote to issue back pay, but there are no guarantees.

Two members of the Butte County Sheriff's Office helped monument staff comb Wednesday through the rough rock and sparse vegetation for any sign of the missing woman, said Dan Buckley, the monument's superintendent.

Although there were throngs of volunteer searchers after Elliott-Blakeslee was first reported missing, the dwindling numbers may actually work in the monument’s favor, Apel said. The easy-access sections of the park have already been extensively combed, and the areas that remain are in distant and difficult terrain.

Those areas are not suited to inexperienced hikers, Apel said, and it is tough to get the teams where they need to be because the park no longer has access to helicopters.

“The areas we have left are very remote, and we can’t handle a very large number of folks,” he said.

Elliott-Blakeslee’s family also called for more experienced hikers to volunteer. Searchers should be able to hike 10 to 12 miles and climb up to 1,000 feet on the rocky slopes, they said in a Monday night statement. The statement expressed concern that novice hikers could easily become injured as bad weather complicated the trek.

Thursday’s forecast brings a 60 percent chance of snow, with one or two inches possible on the ground.

That bitter cold can pose a hazard to searchers and the missing hiker.

“It may be difficult to search tomorrow, but we’ll see how the weather goes and act accordingly,” Apel said. “Luckily, the forecast for Friday and Saturday looks much better.”

Several dog teams are also slated to join the hunt Friday, and monument officials hope they can stay through Saturday. Buckley said he expects to have 30-40 searchers out Friday through Sunday. Thursday, he said, will serve as a planning and rest day for staff, including some who haven't had a day off since Sept. 24.

Thursday will mark two weeks since Elliott-Blakeslee and 69-year-old Amy Linkert disappeared during a day hike on the popular Tree Molds Trail. Linkert’s body was found about a mile from the trail Sept. 25.

Elliottt-Blakeslee’s family has held out hope the woman is still alive. Apel said the search will continue until she is found.

“We don’t terminate the search, we don’t just stop cold,” he said.

Efforts will likely be reduced if time goes on with no sign of Elliott-Blakeslee, but the monument staff will continue to look, albeit in smaller teams, he said.

Those who want to help can volunteer or donate to the search effort by contacting Teresa Hampton at tah@hampton-elliott.com or (208) 859-5816.

Katie Terhune: 377-6219

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