Published DateBy Erik Eisele
CONWAY — As lawmakers consider a bill that would expand billing for back-country rescues, volunteer search and rescue organizations are mobilizing in opposition to the proposal.
Representatives from volunteer groups around the state that assist the Department of Fish and Game with rescues will be traveling to Concord on Thursday to testify in front of the House Fish and Game and Marine Resources Committee about House Bill 256.
"We all have a similar drumbeat," said Bill Kane, a founding member of the New Hampshire Outdoor Council, a former member of Mountain Rescue Service and the director of education at the SOLO wilderness medicine school in Conway. Volunteer search and rescue groups, which provide the state significant manpower and expertise, want to see the bill fail, he said. "There's a lot of collateral damage this bill creates."
House Bill 256 would do three things: create an $18 hiker safety card, tack a $10 fee onto Fish and Game law violations, and create a sliding scale fee to charge rescue victims regardless of whether they were found negligent or not. The goal, according to state officials, is to fill a $200,000 hole in the rescue fund budget.
The state pays for rescues through a special account that is funded by every hunting and fishing license and ATV and snowmobile registration. Each one contributes $1 to the fund.
In recent years, including this year, however, the fund has failed to cover the full costs of rescues.
The state is six months into this year's budget, said Major Kevin Jordan of Fish and Game, and the rescue fund is already empty. A string of recent high-profile rescues, including one that required a helicopter and another that turned into a body recovery, has drained the account for the year.
"We are beyond the money I have to pay for [rescues]," Jordan said on Tuesday. It's getting to the point where the department may have to begin rationing resources in order to maintain the bottom line. After years of struggling with this problem, he said, the department is looking at HB 256 as a possible solution. Billing people "wouldn't be my first choice," he said, but "I can't afford to say no to it."
Volunteer groups, however, can and are saying no. The president of the New Hampshire Outdoor Council, which works with and funds rescue groups, sent out a petition on Wednesday opposing mandatory fees for rescue victims "except in cases of reckless conduct or negligence," and urging the legislature "to adequately fund Fish and Game expenditures for search and rescue."
Rick Wilcox, the president of Mountain Rescue Service, echoed the N.H. Outdoor Council petition. "We are opposed to charging people," he said on Tuesday. The U.S. Forest Service doesn't charge for rescues on Mount Washington, he said, and he doesn't want to see the state doing it elsewhere.
Several representatives from Mountain Rescue Service will be going to Concord to testify, according to board members, to voice concerns that people might delay calling for a rescue out of concern about the fee, and in so doing both exacerbate their situation and put rescuers at additional risk.
The state already has the authority to charge for rescues of people deemed to have behaved negligently. The standard was originally recklessness, but it was lowered several years ago.
The hiker safety card would exclude victims not deemed reckless or negligent from paying the fee, as would hunting and fishing licenses and snowmobile and ATV registrations. Bills would range from $350 to $1,000, and according to state estimates could raise more than $57,000. No estimates were available for how much the hiker safety card or the added fee on violations would raise.
Rescue volunteers, however, would like to see the state fund searches through the general fund or by taking a cut of rooms and meals revenue. The $200,000 shortfall is a small price to pay for the millions of dollars visitors spend in new hampshire, they argue, and should be considered the cost of doing business. Some have gone so far as to threaten to stop responding if the state starts billing.
The idea of paying for rescues through the general fund or rooms and meals, however, didn't gain much traction with Rep. Gene Chandler, the bill's sponsor.
"That's just not going to happen," he said on Wednesday. The rescue groups are important, he said, and their input is important, but "that defies logic." There are far too many more pressing priorities, he said. Alternative proposals need to be "something that's realistic."
Jordan said he agrees with the volunteer groups supporting a broad-based funding approach, but after repeated attempts to make that happen he is supporting this bill. Every time hunters read about an expensive rescue, he said, he gets emails asking, "Who just paid for that?"
"I'm caught in the middle," he said, and if things don't change the department will have to begin rationing resources. When that happens, he said, eventually someone who could have been saved is going to die. "We're going to lose a life," he said.