Proposal Would Bill Hikers for the Cost of Searches and Rescues

Revenue would help solve shortfall in Fish and Game rescue fund

BY ERIK EISELE
THE CONWAY DAILY SUN

January 10, 2013

CONWAY — Local lawmakers are finalizing a proposal to charge victims the cost of searches and rescues regardless of whether they are deemed negligent or not.  Bills would only be for part of the cost of the rescue, according to officials, between $350 and $1,000, except in those cases of where the victim was deemed negligent. In those cases victims can be charged the full cost.  The hope is the bills, along with several other proposed new revenue streams, can alleviate a recurring shortfall within the Department of Fish and Game’s rescue fund.

The fund gets $1 from every hunting license, $1 from every fishing licenses, $1 from every ATV registration and $1 from every snowmobile registration.
But those income streams don’t cover the cost, according to Fish and Game Major Kevin Jordan. Each year rescues cost the department roughly $200,000, he said, and even though the bulk of the expensive rescues involve hikers it is the sportsmen and the OHRV riders who cover the bills.

The new proposal would shift some of the expense to hikers, increase the proportion paid by sportsmen and put a price on every rescue called in.  “This is not the optimal program,” Jordan said, but the agency needs to do something.

The proposal, which is currently just a legislative request but is making its way into bill form, was at the behest of Rep. Gene Chandler of Bartlett. It would create a sliding scale fee structure where fees would depend on the cost of the rescue. A $500 to $1,000 rescue, for example, would generate a bill of $350. A $1,000 to $1,500 rescue would cost the victim $600, and a rescue costing more than $1,500 would cost the victim $1,000.  In any instance where the victim was negligent, however, the victim would be charged the full amount of the rescue.

There would also be a $10 surcharge added to any Fish and Game-related violation that would go into the fund, according to officials, so if someone were caught poaching or taking an undersized fish they would be helping pay for searches. 

The last piece, according to officials, is a voluntary Hike Safe card that hikers could purchase to support the fund. The card would cost $18, and anyone who had one would have their bill forgiven should they need a rescue so long as they weren’t found negligent.  The proposal could change, Chandler said, but that is the initial plan, which is based on a study committee report from last year. “We had to start with something,” he said. “We’ll just see how we do.”

Sen. Jeb Bradley of Wolfeboro, an avid hiker, believes the proposal represents a good compromise. “There’s a lot of rescues. They’re becoming more frequent,” he said. “The cost is climbing higher and higher.”  The “fairest thing to do,” he said, is to lay the bulk of the cost at the feet of those who require help. “If you use the service there should be an expectation you’re going to pay something for it,” he said.

Proposals to bill victims, however, have in the past seen opposition from people concerned victims will wait to call for a rescue to avoid an expensive bill. Charging victims will lead people to wait until they are in serious trouble before asking for help, opponents argue, which will only make the problem worse.

Bradley understands the concern, but the state needs to figure out a way to pay for these rescues, he said. “If you need the service you should expect to pay something.”  That is not the only concern, however. Jordan said he has heard people in volunteer groups that assist Fish and Game say they would likely stop volunteering their time if victims are charged.  “It’s been threatened,” he said, but the department has to make the numbers work even if it risks alienating volunteers.  Chandler is also sensitive to that concern. “Obviously [volunteers] are important,” he said. “We really need their help.” But again, he said, this is the starting point for the conversation.

And it will need to be. Even if this proposal goes through, Jordan said, recent changes in what Fish and Game has to pay for may mean this effort won’t be enough. Until recently, he said, when the National Guard came to assist with a Blackhawk helicopter the state wasn’t charged, the cost was written off as training. But that has changed, he said, and now the state pays between $5,000 and $8,000 per hour for the helicopter.

A rescue two weeks ago ended when the two victims were picked up by helicopter. “That’ll be an $8,000 bill for us,” Jordan said. “That’s just added a new wedge to this.”  Jordan has repeatedly argued funding for rescues should come from the general fund or paid by the rooms and meals tax, but “it just doesn’t get you anywhere.” Lawmakers reject that approach, he said, so this is the next best thing the department has come up with. “What we’re shooting for is a little over $200,000,” he said.

The proposal, however, has a long way to go to become state law. The system is broken, everyone agrees, but what’s unclear is how to fix it.

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