As a conservation officer, one of my missions is search and rescue. 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 had 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. They 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 temperatures would have plummeted.

We conservation officers in the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 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, all of which are essential.

The majority of the work involves research, which is heavily dependent on aerial observation and photography. Our department tracks the spread of forest diseases and 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 the relative numbers of cows, calves, and bulls; and better understand the overall local ecology.

A forester making the observations necessary from the ground for a survey of forest health would require an extraordinary 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 anglers 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 the illegal activity.

As stated, one of the most important parts of a conservation officer’s job is search and rescue. Every year, hikers, hunters, and snowmobilers are reported missing in parks and public lands when they do not return as 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 — which rely on aviation assets. We also hire contractors to fight forest fires by air.

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 job sites or to visit suppliers and customers throughout the region. In fact, local airports are often an anchor for local business growth, attracting new employers.

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. When it comes to aviation, I know many throughout our state and country think about commercial aviation, roads, and bridges. 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 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. He flies out of the Brainerd Airport.