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Hiking insurance: A play for Fish & Game money

June 08. 2014 11:33PM

The Legislature has just approved a “Hike Safe” card, which is like an insurance card for hikers. The latest effort to provide the state Fish and Game Department’s search and rescue fund with some much-needed revenue, it is a lot better than actually charging hikers, which might come down the pike some day if the state cannot find a better source of revenue for the department.

Fish and Game is self-funded, primarily through permit and license revenue. The search and rescue fund is also self-funded, via boat and OHRV permit revenue. For years, that revenue has come in well below the cost of actually rescuing people in the wilds of New Hamsphire.

In 2011, legislators transferred $50,000 in revenue generated from Cannon Mountain to the search and rescue fund. Before that, they passed a law allowing the state to bill hikers who had to be rescued because of their own negligence. Most don’t pay anywhere near the cost of their rescue, which can reach the high five figures.

This time legislators turned to the Hike Safe card, an idea that has been considered for years. The card costs $25, $35 for a family, and those who own one will be rescued at no charge if they get lost in the wilderness. It is a get-out-of-the-woods-free card.

The idea is that most people who buy the card will be pretty responsible hikers who won’t need rescuing. The small fee they pay for some peace of mind will finance the rescues of less responsible hikers. It is a good idea, but it is unlikely to fully fund searches and rescues. And it does not bring the financially struggling department into the black.

Last year Fish and Game used $140,000 from dedicated Habitat, Game Management and Fisheries Habitat Accounts to balance its budget. Its funding is dwindling because interest in hunting and fishing is dwindling. A state study in 2008 found that 45 percent of Granite Staters watch wildlife, but only 14 percent hunt or fish. A department reliant on hunting and fishing revenue is going to be a very small department, ill-equipped to fulfill its mission.

The Hike Safe card bill reauthorizes a commission to study “Opportunities and Options to Improve the Sustainability of the Fish and Game Department.” The commission should focus its efforts on devising other voluntary funding mechanisms that allow users of Fish & Game services to pay for the department. Raiding dedicated funds is not a long-term solution.

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