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June 16. 2012 11:36PM

Paying the tab for rescuing unprepared hikers is an uphill climb

A Vermont family of six gets lost near the summit of Little Haystack Mountain without adequate gear or navigation equipment.

Five people from Massachusetts and Louisiana wind up in woods near New Ipswich without flashlights as nightfall arrives.

A man from Cape Cod decides to do “the stupidest thing I’ve ever done” and hike Mt. Madison with neither provisions nor equipment.

All these cases occurred since May 7, and all involved rescues by the Department of Fish and Game.

The cost of searching for hikers who get lost in the state’s vast outdoor playground annually reaches more than $300,000 a year, with much of the money siphoned away from funds intended to provide services to hunters and fishermen.

The state Legislature allocates about $180,000 each year to find people who get lost in the wild, but with the cost of some searches reaching $25,000 and more, the fund runs dry every year.

Once the money allocated to searches runs out, state Fish and Game officials pay the bills from a fund that supports fishing and hunting.

Meanwhile, most of the people who get themselves lost are hikers and climbers who pay nothing to enjoy the outdoors. The search-and-rescue operations are funded by the cost of fishing and hunting licenses, in addition to a dollar taken from registrations for boats, snow machines and off-road vehicles.

Maj. Kevin Jordan of the state Department of Fish and Game said his agency was called out 799 times between 2007 and 2011 to look for people who were lost or stranded. Of the searches, 443, or 56 percent of the total, were for climbers and hikers.

The people who have to buy license — the fishermen, hunters, boaters and vehicle operators — were the subjects of only 121 of the searches.

“Those people get about 16 percent of the services; they are paying 100 percent of the cost,” Jordan said.

Also accounting for a segment of the searches are what officials term “walkaways,” basically children, people suffering from dementia and people with emotional issues.

National forest

The White Mountain National Forest is the most frequent site of searches, with 324 over the reported five-year period. Even though the forest is federal property, the state bears just about all of the cost for searches there. Federal snow rangers patrol Tuckerman’s Ravine, but only during the winter.

While volunteers often assist in searches, state manpower gets very expensive very quickly. Searches often run beyond the end of a work shift, requiring overtime and call-in pay for state members of the rescue crews.

Charged for service

The state can and does charge some people for searches. A provision of New Hampshire state law provides that “any person determined by the department to have acted negligently in requiring a search and rescue response by the department shall be liable to the department for the reasonable cost.”

People who are rescued and try to stiff the state on the bill can face sanctions. The law provides that licenses to drive, fish and hunt can be suspended for nonpayment, as can any license issued by the state Department of Human Services.

“We spend a lot of time trying to be a bill collector,” said Col. Martin Garabedian, chief of Fish and Game law enforcement.

Searches for which someone is actually billed are relatively rare.

During the five-year period in which 799 searches were conducted, only the most egregious cases resulted in an invoice.

Jordan said $83,025 was billed for 38 missions “done due to recklessness or negligence. We got $53,000 back.”

Determining who gets a bill is a judgment call. It is based on the site commander’s assessment of the story behind the weekend adventurer’s mistakes. The agency does not bill for searches involving a fatality.

“We look at what created the situation, we’re not going after people who trip and blow their knee out,” Jordan said. “We’re looking for the guy on drugs or alcohol or who was not equipped.”

In some cases, Jordan said, visitors do things most Granite Staters know better than to even think about, such as trying to summit Mt. Washington in sandals or with no snowshoes or heavy weather gear.

Collection depends to significant extent on the ability of the rescued to pay.

Sometimes, hikers and climbers who didn’t know enough to take adequate precautions before heading out recover their mental faculties when they’re being interviewed about their misadventure.

“They start politicking on the way down,” Jordan said. “They say, ‘Am I going to get a bill for this?’”

Several proposals have been floated for better funding search-and-rescue operations. Fish and Game is recommending a sliding fee scale for rescues, based on the idea that anyone pulled off a mountain or trail receives specific services and should pay for them.

The agency has asked that everyone pulled out of the wild be sent a bill.

“We recommend billing a baseline fee under guidelines, excluding individuals with a valid hunting or fishing or OVHR license because they have already contributed,” Nolan said.

The fee scale would include a bill for $350 for rescues costing $500 to $999; $600 for rescues costing $1,000 to $1,400; and $1,000 for rescues costing $1,500 or more.

Based on the cost of rescues over the past five years, the fee scheme would bring in more than $100,000 — money the Legislature has declined to take from the state’s taxpayers.

“There is no money in the pot is what I am told. Nobody wants added taxes,” Jordan said.

A legislative study committee made recommendations for funding, but bills to do it were washed away in the flood of controversial legislation that occupied much of this year’s legislative session.

Regardless of funding, however, Fish and Game will continue its job of saving people from themselves.

“The guys feel good about it, they are very good at it, and they are very well-trained,” Jordan said. “We just want to pay for it.”

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Bill Smith may be reached at wsmith@unionleader.com.


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