WASHINGTON — New Hampshire’s congressional delegation is seeking financial support for the state Department of Fish and Game since it, among other agencies, has been conducting rescues in the forest without compensation.
That was the gist of a letter sent by U.S. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan and U.S. Reps. Carol Shea-Porter and Annie Kuster (all D-N.H.), along with Acting Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen, and Acting Director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Margaret Everson.
The letter urged them to meet with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department to discuss funding options to cover rising federal land management costs that have fallen to state and local entities.
In their letter, the delegation notes that the Forest Service and Fish & Wildlife Service manage about 13.8 percent of the entire land mass of New Hampshire but adds that the responsibility for daily activities, including outdoor recreation, law enforcement and search-and-rescue operations, falls to local agencies.
According to Fish and Game, 47 percent of all search-and-rescue operations in the state take place on federally owned lands.
The delegation said the forest service reimburses the Coos County and Grafton County sheriff’s departments for patrols of the White Mountain National Forest in summer and encouraged the agencies to consider making similar arrangements with Fish and Game.
Carroll County Sheriff Domenic Richardi said his department gets the same funding as the Coos and Grafton departments.
David Patch of Bartlett, a Fish and Game commissioner from Carroll County, said he was “extremely pleased” with the delegation for writing the letter.
“They are saying what we have been saying for quite some time,” said Patch. “When you have your congressional delegation on your side, you have a much better chance of making headway.”
Patch said if Fish and Game gets help from the Forest Service and Gov. Chris Sununu is able to get the agency several million dollars in the budget, the department would be in much better shape.
Conway Village Fire Chief Steve Solomon has said for a while that the federal government should participate in paying for rescues in the national forest.
“Although Fish and Game responds to and provides coordination for search and rescue, the rescues are commonly performed by other
agencies, either municipal agencies such as Conway Fire and North Conway Fire, or volunteer groups such as Mountain Rescue Service and Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue.”
Solomon said the White Mountain National Forest has seen an increase in users over the years, putting added strain on state and local rescue agencies.
“It takes 20 people to carry someone down from the top of Chocorua. Fish and Game can’t provide 20 conservation officers,” said Solomon.
“Conway Fire can’t provide 20 firefighters trained and equipped for back country rescue. We commonly end up having to call four, five, even six agencies and volunteer groups to assemble the necessary personnel to accomplish the mission.
“It is unfair to expect Fish and Game, or Conway Fire, or MRS, or AVSAR, or any of the other groups that provide search and rescue to perform these duties without supplying us with the resources necessary to do so,” Solomon said.
The letter also was “good news” to former state Sen. Kevin Avard (R-Nashua), who led the Commission to Study the Efficiency and Effectiveness of Fish and Game Department Operations. The commission released its report Nov. 1.
Avard lost his re-election bid Nov. 6.
The commission’s report was sent to Christiansen and Everson along with the letter from the federal delegation. The commission had a number of ideas to increase funding for Fish and Game. Among them was having the congressional delegation seek funding from the Department of Agriculture, as the Forest Service operates as an agency within the USDA. Other ideas included a small hike in the rooms and meals tax as well as having a canoe and kayak fee. Avard also said $2 million should come from the state’s general fund.
“Someone needs to get helped off a cliff or gets hurt, that can range from $6,000-$60,000 a whack,” Avard said. “Law enforcement should be where we should be asking the feds to help out ... That was heavily stressed in the committee.”
After the commission’s report came out, Albany Selectman Rick Hiland said Albany would benefit from having federal help in paying for rescues in the national forest. (Conway Village Fire Department also covers Albany). He said 88 percent of Albany is in the forest, yet the town doesn’t get much of a payment in lieu of taxes from the feds for the forest lands.
“If they are going to charge NHF&G with search and rescue, then they should make sure that they are properly funded,” said Hiland. “There also needs to be a reimbursement program to reimburse towns for their costs in search and rescue efforts to take this burden off local property taxpayers.”
Asked for a comment, forest service spokesman Evan Burks said: “The White Mountain National Forest looks forward to continuing to work closely with N.H. Fish & Game to support public safety initiatives including search and rescue operations.”
He also included a fact sheet describing the lines of responsibility between state and federal agencies involved with the forest:
• The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department is mandated by current law to conduct all search and rescue missions that occur within the woodlands and waterways of our state. In 1989, a legislated funding mechanism to support this effort was created. This funding mechanism is a $1 fee collected for each boat, snow machine and OHRV registered in New Hampshire, which gets deposited into the Search and Rescue Fund.
• White Mountain National Forest has partnered with Fish and Game to create and promote the HikeSafe program, which educates hikers on preparedness. Hikers pay a fee to purchase a card indemnifying them against the costs of rescue operations on their behalf.
• The forest service covers search/rescue missions in the Cutler River Drainage from December to May. This is at an annual expense of approximately $200,000. However, the U.S. Forest Service/White Mountain National Forest does not have a cost share or monetary agreement with New Hampshire.
• Forest Service policy (FSM 1599) says that the state and local agencies are the lead and have the responsibility for SAR (Search and Rescue). Only in emergency situations where the FS is the closest/immediately available do we assume the lead on a SAR until the appropriate state/local resources arrive.
• The Forest Service is not appropriated any specific funding for SAR. However, we are allowed to disburse general NFS funds to pay for our FS people that assist on SARs (16 USC 575).
• There is no precedent for the USDA Forest Service reimbursing state and local agencies for search/rescue missions on National Forest System lands. The agency does not receive appropriated funds for search/rescue missions, and our Law Enforcement Cooperative Agreements do not include specific funding for search/rescue missions; rather, these agreements reimburse for enforcement/patrol-related activities.