Friday February 1, 2013

Pressure cookers that have been simmering slowly in Vermont and New Hampshire are beginning to boil over and a real explosion may be on the way.

The question at hand is how to pay for the increasing number of wilderness search-and-rescue operations these two states are having to conduct each year. I’m sure the problem exists in other states, but it’s making news in New Hampshire and Vermont.

Of course, anyone who reads this column is obviously smart enough to plan well, make informed choices, and be personally prepared so they never need rescuing. But it’s still a major issue that, in one way or another, will impact all of us who play outdoors.

In Vermont, search-and-rescue operations are overseen by the state police. The problem in the Green Mountain State comes with the big increase "sidecountry" skiers and snowboarders who start from a lift-serviced ski area and go looking for untouched snow deep in the woods, often beyond the ski area boundaries.

These adventurers are usually totally unprepared, ill-equipped and call for help when they can’t find their own way out by dark.

There have been more than such 70 incidents so far this season and deep snows in February and March will only make the numbers grow.

In New Hampshire, the Fish and Game Department oversees all search and rescue missions. Since 2006, they reported 957 missions, 543 (57 percent) were for hikers and climbers; 159 (17 percent) were "walk-aways/runaways" (kids or impaired adults); 136 (14 percent) were for hunters, anglers, boaters and OHRV/ATV riders.

The problem is that it only the latter group who contributed toward the total $1.8 million spent on search and rescue in those six years.

One dollar from every boat and off-road vehicle registration (including snowmobiles) goes into the search-and-rescue fund, and shortfall is paid by revenues from hunting and fishing licenses.

A proposal before the New Hampshire state Legislature seems to make sense, at least to me. Basically, it would offer hikers the opportunity to purchase a one-time, entirely voluntary "Hike Safe" card.

Hike Safe, incidentally, is the excellent education and outreach program -- www.hikesafe.com -- created jointly by the White Mountain National Forest (where 412 of the 957search-and-rescue missions in the last six years have taken place) and N.H. Fish and Game.

Anyone who purchased this Hike Safe card (the proposal prices it at $18, but that could easily change), or who registered a boat or off-road vehicle in the past year would not be liable for the cost of any rescue (The average rescue in New Hampshire now costs $1,958).

Everyone else would automatically be billed $600 for a rescue costing $100-$1,500, or up to to $1,000 for more expensive efforts.

Currently the law allows billing of some for the entire cost of their rescue, but only about 64 percent of that is ever collected.

Someone has to pay and, in these days of increased government austerity, it should be the people who need or are most likely to need rescue.