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Billing hikers: The future of search and rescue?

February 02. 2013 10:52PM

New Hampshire has to come up with a new way to finance search and rescue missions, and Rep. Gene Chandler is on the right path.

Rep. Chandler, R-Bartlett, has introduced a bill (House Bill 256) that would charge, on a sliding scale, everyone who has to be rescued by the state if lost in the woods, capsized on a lake, etc. Currently, the state charges only those who are found to be negligent, and for the most part they do not pay.

It is not Chandler's proposal to charge for all rescues that has the most merit. There are some good reasons why the state might not want to do precisely that. Rather, the strength of Chandler's bill is that it begins moving the state away from its long-standing practice of funding searches and rescues with fees on people who make up fewer than half of all rescues: hunters, fishermen, boaters, snowmobilers and ATV riders.

The existing funding structure is a matter of convenience. It is easy to charge people to register vehicles or obtain licenses. There is no easy way to charge people for hiking or walking in the woods. The state cannot put a toll booth at every trail head. It cannot very well make hikers obtain licenses to use public lands, either. But hikers account for more than half of searches and rescues. What is the state to do?

We could simply pay for them with general taxation. Or we could dedicate a portion of the rooms and meals tax, as Susan Arnold, vice president for conservation of the Appalachian Mountain Club, has suggested. But both of those go against the old-fashioned New Hamsphire tradition that the user should pay, to the greatest extent possible, for specialized services.

Chandler would combine his minimum rescue fee ($350-$1,000) with a "hike safe card" available to hikers. Buy the $18 card, and if you have to be rescued, it's covered. That is a creative idea well worth considering. It would give hikers peace of mind while also encouraging them to think more seriously about trip preparation.

HB 256 will not provide full funding for searches and rescues, and more deliberation is needed about the pros and cons of the plan. But Chandler has moved the conversation in a new and promising direction, and legislators need to give this proposal serious consideration.

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