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January 12. 2013 11:37PM

Bill would set fees for rescuing hikers

MANCHESTER - Getting agreement on the best way to pay for search-and-rescue operations in the state has been more difficult than finding the hikers the money would serve.

While there is never a shortage of work for the 48-member team the Department of Fish and Game dispatches when someone is lost or injured in the most remote and rugged areas of the Granite State, the fund set aside for the costs ends up covering only a fraction of the final tab.

A state representative is drafting a bill he hopes will eventually lead to change, even if it isn't in the form of a sliding scale of fees he is proposing to charge those who needed rescuing.

"It's just a starting point," Rep. Gene Chandler of Bartlett said. "I think the thing we're mostly trying to portray here is we have a very serious problem needs to be dealt with."

Chandler, the House minority leader, and a group of cosponsors are still working on the bill they plan to introduce at a public hearing sometime during the 2013 session. It will call for flat fees ranging from $350 to $1,000, depending on the overall cost of the rescue operations.

The state already has a law allowing it to bill for rescues, but it only applies in cases of negligence - when the person or people who needed help put themselves in a precarious position without taking even simple precautions such as bringing a compass or setting out early enough to return before sundown.

Since the law was past, Jordan said, Fish and Game has only billed for 38 rescue missions and found difficulties in collecting.

Chandler's plan would expand the billing to all rescues, with exceptions for anyone who has a state hunting or fishing license or has a snowmobile, ATV or boat registered in the state. The proposal would also offer an option for families to purchase a hiker safety card for $18, which would exempt all members of the family from facing a bill if they needed help off a mountain.

Fish and Game Maj. Kevin Jordan said the bill has its merits, but he does not expect it to go far. He said this will be the 10th bill regarding rescue funding to be presented to the Legislature over the last 20 years.

"This particular bill certainly is not the answer. It's just that we're at a point where if it opens the conversation again, that's great," Jordan said. "We hope beyond hope that somebody's going to come up with an idea."

Jordan said the Fish and Game rescue account is built by taking $1 from the cost of registration fees for boats, snowmobiles and ATVs; it reaches about $100,000 annually. The problem is Fish and Game has needed about $300,000 annually to cover the costs of rescues, which happen often when people stray too deep into the wilderness or too high up a mountain.

Jordan said the shortfall is covered by Fish and Game's general fund, which comes from hunting and fishing licenses. And the complaints from outdoor sportsmen have been growing as more learn that money they thought was going to support wildlife in the state is instead being spent to cover the cost of rescues.

"The quiet majority of people have decided that now they want something done about it," Jordan said. "They are planning on attending this hearing. They want their opinion and their numbers counted."


dalden@unionleader.com


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