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January 21. 2014 7:27PM

Card would cover NH wilderness rescue costs

CONCORD — Fish and Game Department officials hope a new "Hike Safe" card provides about $110,000 for search and rescue operations.

Hikers who purchased the card would not be billed if they ever needed to be rescued.

At a public hearing on House Bill 256 before the House Ways and Means Committee Tuesday, key committee members pushed agency officials to include a group rate for organizations such as the Boy Scouts or a town recreation department.

The House voted to preliminarily approve the bill that must pass scrutiny from the committee overseeing taxes and fees.

The Fish and Game Department and lawmakers have tried for years to find additional revenue to cover the cost of search and rescue operations, which cost more than $300,000 a year.

Currently $1 from boat, snowmobile and off-road vehicle registration fees go into the fund, which raises about $180,000 a year. The shortfall comes out of the general fish and game fund, which is revenue from hunting and fishing licenses.

Yet hikers and climbers, who do not pay into the search and rescues fund, account for 57 percent of the missions, said Maj. Kevin Jordan, assistant chief of law enforcement for the department, while those who pay into the fund account for 14 percent of the missions.

The bill's prime sponsor, House Minority Leader Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett, said the situation is not going away and needs to be fixed.

"This doesn't solve the problem, but it is a good first step," he said. "The highest department estimate (of what the card would produce) is still short of what the department needs long-term."

The bill has the backing of the New Hampshire Off-Highway Vehicle Association, whose president, Harry Brown, said it is long overdue.

"We like the playing field leveled," he told the committee. "It's unjust and unfair to have two groups who utilize (search and rescue) services very little bearing the costs. This is cost-shifting."

About 22,000 off-road vehicles and 60,000 snowmobiles are registered each year.

Under the bill, the cost of a hike safe card would be $25 for an individual and $35 for a family. Jordan said the target is 5,000 cards, which would produce about $110,000 a year.

Under the bill, those who pay the registration and license fees as well as the hike safe card holders would not be billed for searches and rescues.

The hike safe card is modeled after a similar program in Colorado that has been in place for a number of years. Local hiking organizations and groups like the Appalachian Mountain Club have said they will promote the cards.

Committee chair Rep. Susan Almy, D-Lebanon, and former chair Rep. Norm Major, R-Plaistow, wondered why the agency had not included a group rate for organizations like the Boy Scouts or a recreation department who might take a group out on a hike.

Jordan said the policy would be if the leader had a hike safe card, others in the group would not be charged for a rescue.

But Almy asked him to consider a group rate and said the committee would explore it as it discusses the bill.

From 2006 to 2012, his agency responded to 957 incidents, Jordan said, and the majority is for missing or injured hikers or climbers.

Other rescues are for those who do pay registration fees and for licenses, and for missing persons or runaways.

"What is killing us are the constant smaller calls," Jordan said.

The state can charge hikers for the cost of the rescue, but most do not pay the bill.

State budget writers have been reluctant to use state general fund money to pay for the rescues and instead have proposed other methods to no avail.

A commission studying alternative ways to raise revenue for the department would be continued under the bill, as would a committee looking at how best to pay for search and rescue operations.

The committee did not make an immediate recommendation on the bill.

grayno@unionleader.com


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