Who Pays for Search and Rescue? Behind the Tricky Economics of New Hampshire SAR

February 27, 2020
New Hampshire SAR
Illustration by Ethan ThorntonRescues are on the rise in the New Hampshire backcountry, and they’re not cheap. We dig into the tricky economics of SAR and how to avoid getting billed for your own rescue.

When rescue teams found James Clark on Mount Washington’s Lion Head Trail at 1:15 a.m. on June 14, 2019, the 80-year-old Dublin, Ohio, resident was barely clinging to life. The day before, Clark had set out with his two teenage grandsons on what was supposed to be a day hike to the summit of New Hampshire’s tallest peak. When he couldn’t keep up, he suggested the boys press ahead. Clark’s plan was to hike at his own pace uphill then take the Mount Washington Cog Railway down the mountain, meeting his grandsons at the Ammonoosuc Ravine trailhead. But when Clark wasn’t on the day’s last train, the boys, ages 19 and 14, knew he was in trouble and called for help.

The mission to save Clark required teams from New Hampshire Fish and Game (NHFG), AMC, and Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue (AVSAR), taking rescuers above treeline, into the early hours of the morning, in below-freezing temperatures and 60 mph winds. It took the teams five and a half hours to find Clark, who had collapsed due to his weakened muscles giving out, and another four hours to carry him the 1.7 miles to the Mount Washington Auto Road, where a car was waiting to ferry him to the hospital.

The story of Clark’s rescue made national headlines, not for the rescuers’ heroics but for the hefty bill NHFG sent Clark—nearly $2,500. NHFG’s reasoning was that Clark and his grandsons practiced negligent hiking behavior, as Clark was still recovering from a previous injury and lacked the proper equipment for a hike at such high elevation. (Clark was found at 5,200 feet, around 1,000 feet below Mount Washington’s summit.) For a time, the state wouldn’t rule out filing criminal charges against the teenagers for leaving their grandfather behind. New Hampshire never charged the boys, but once Clark recovered, he admitted fault and voluntarily paid the full amount.

It may be hard to reconcile the idea of Clark as simultaneous victim and perpetrator, but stories like his are becoming increasingly common in the White Mountains. As hiking continues to grow in popularity, both among locals and out-of-state visitors, NHFG has found itself deploying more and more missions to rescue underprepared hikers. In most cases, the expense for these missions falls to the budget-strapped Fish and Game Department, which has already paid a price in both labor and in risk.

All of this begs the questions: Who is responsible when hikers fall? And who should pay?

 

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DANGEROUS SHORTFALLS

Whether it’s walking someone to safety or carrying them over multiple hours on a litter—a type of stretcher designed to transport an injured person over obstacles, like slopes or wooded terrain—New Hampshire Fish and Game has made an average of 189 rescues a year, costing between $500 and $3,000 each, since 2008. Where NHFG’s cost of search and rescue missions averages $309,000 each year, the department’s annual search and rescue budget is much lower—approximately $180,000, accumulated through a portion of license registration fees—leaving the department to make up the rest through its general fund. Officials say this means they’re constantly sacrificing other priorities, such as equipment maintenance and replacement, training, and environmental policing.

“Part of the problem is, we make it work every year,” says Col. Kevin Jordan, NHFG’s chief of law enforcement. “If I had a permanent $200,000 of general funds [for search and rescue], I could replace equipment and provide training. But you have to jump to get that kind of money. It makes it tough.”

Compare that to states like New York, where the state’s general fund allocates money each year to pay for search and rescue missions, or Virginia, where hunting and fishing licenses help pay for search and rescue and the state general fund makes up the difference. In those cases, funding deficits aren’t an issue, allowing states to focus on training, hire employees, and purchase and fix vital equipment. It’s different than New Hampshire’s model, where making up the difference comes from NHFG’s much smaller budget versus the state’s pool.

New Hampshire still relies on help from volunteer search and rescue groups like the Pemigewasset Valley Search and Rescue (PVSAR) team, which responds to as many as 30 calls each year. Its funding for new equipment, like new waterproof jackets to wear on search missions, comes through grants from agencies like the New Hampshire Outdoor Council (NHOC) and through other private gifts.

“Sometimes the people we rescue will send donations directly to us,” says Allan Clarke, president of the PVSAR.

NHFG’s search and rescue budget comes from $1 of every off-road recreational vehicle, all-terrain vehicle, and boat license sold, a standard that has not changed since 1989. Once that pool runs dry, NHFG must dip into the money accumulated from hunting and fishing licenses sold throughout the year. But as the number of rescues continues to rise every year, the number of licenses sold is decreasing, mainly due to less interest in those recreational activities. NHFG leaders say the department’s challenge is to find new ways to offset costs, including cracking down on preventable rescue missions by charging negligent hikers—more on that later—and bolstering its promotion of safe hiking practices.

The latter strategy, at least, seems straightforward enough. For starters, prominent trail signs are posted before hikers enter the alpine zone on all mountains in New Hampshire’s popular Presidential Range, warning of the potential hazards above treeline. “STOP,” these signs read, in capital letters. “The area ahead has the worst weather in America. Many have died there from exposure, even in the summer. Turn back if the weather is bad.”

And yet, some hikers choose to dismiss the warnings. Rescues peak from August to October, when days are getting shorter and temperatures are much colder at higher elevations than in the valleys. NHFG’s Jordan explains that hikers unfamiliar with the climate will skimp on bringing essential extra layers, opening the door to dangers, such as hypothermia. (Atop Mount Washington, the highest recorded temperature ever, in any season, is 72 degrees Fahrenheit and summer lows hover around 43 degrees Fahrenheit, on average.)

“The vast majority of those unprepared calls are for no lights, no maps, not enough gear, not the appropriate gear for cold temperatures,” Jordan says. “It’s very frustrating that people don’t understand the importance of [those items].”

Negligence like this, in which a hiker chooses to leave behind essential gear, often leads to otherwise-unnecessary rescues in unforgiving terrain. In some ways, octogenarian James Clark is actually an outlier. Jordan says the most common age bracket for hiker negligence is late 20s to early 30s, when hubris, rather than physical ability, impedes decision making.

In cases where backcountry rescues are clearly preventable, New Hampshire sends the offending hiker or hikers the bill. Since 2008, when New Hampshire began requesting reimbursement for preventable rescues, 32 of NHFG’s 189 annual rescue missions were a result of poor judgment or unpreparedness, with another six involving someone under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Of those rescues, an average of 17 were sent a bill. (NHFG started recording billed hikers in 2014, with a total of 85 cases receiving a bill out of the five-year total of 160 rescues of negligent hikers in the same timeframe.) In the case of James Clark, his decision to break from his group at his age and with a previous injury was enough to put him in unnecessary danger.

“You have to do something pretty outrageous to get billed,” Jordan says.

 

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PAYING UP—OR NOT

This doesn’t mean all bills get paid. A third of NHFG bills go unpaid, with many cases lingering for years in court. “It really comes down to if people can pay,” Jordan says. “Every case goes through multiple reviews to determine if we should charge the person, but people still argue against it.”

Some point out that New Hampshire’s hunters, fishers, and boaters unfairly fund NHFG rescues through the state-mandated licensing program despite those categories of users accounting for just under 11 percent of all rescues. Hikers and climbers, meanwhile, comprise 62 percent of rescues annually.

Jordan says NHFG has considered setting up a licensing program where, like fishers or hunters, hikers would pay an annual, mandatory fee to hike on public lands—an idea that has proven difficult to implement.

“The issue there is that we can’t really come up with a definition for hiking versus walking, trail running, et cetera, so we really couldn’t come up with a fair way to do a license,” he says. “We’ve thought about adding a tax to items sold, like bottles of water or hiking equipment, similar to how there’s a tax on hunting equipment that helps preserve habitats.”

The closest New Hampshire has gotten to this sort of license is the voluntary Hike Safe card (not to be confused with the hiking education program of the same name), where hikers can opt to pay a $25 annual fee, $35 for families, for a card that waives its holder from any obligation to pay for search and rescue efforts, except those caused by extreme negligence. All revenues from Hike Safe, around $100,000 annually, goes back to NHFG.

“Over the past few years, there’s been an upswell in sales of Hike Safe cards,” says Chris Thayer, AMC’s director of guided outdoors. “It’s not so much an insurance policy as it is a way for [mostly hikers] to support the rescue services. What I like about it is that it expands the contribution for rescues beyond anglers, hunters, and boaters to the broader recreation community, including hikers.”

While not a “get out of jail free” card, Jordan says the state has yet to send a bill to someone with a Hike Safe card. Unfortunately, because Hike Safe is voluntary, NHFG can’t bank on the program. “The challenge is managing a budget on what you hope comes in,” he adds.

Still, Hike Safe has proven to be a good source of revenue for search and rescue, thanks in part to hikers getting the word out, and for the steady rise in the number of hikers on the trails. According to the Outdoor Industry Association’s 2018 Outdoor Participation report, 44.9 million people said they hiked in 2017, up from 30 million in 2006. This increase makes the rise in the number of search and rescue responses a bit of a numbers game too, perhaps even an unintended effect of AMC’s effort to get people outdoors. But Thayer says AMC’s initiatives to promote outdoor recreation come with careful consideration of educational and prevention tools to make sure people are getting outside safely.

“AMC invests in public awareness and hiker safety education through programs, volunteer service commitments, overnight guest confirmation, social and media channels, and guidebook publications,” Thayer says. “Our public, staff, and volunteer trainings are designed to encourage best practices in the field.”

 

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PITCHING IN

New Hampshire isn’t alone in charging some of those being rescued. In Utah and Oregon, it’s common practice. Utah even offers its own version of the Hike Safe card, with similar restrictions. While the decision to charge for search and rescue is up to state leaders—and varies from state to state—the National Association for Search and Rescue actually advises against the practice, saying it could discourage those in distress from calling for help. New York and Virginia follow this advice.

“Rather [than bill for rescues], New York invests directly in our search and rescue operations to ensure our experts have the resources they need to respond whenever the need arises,” says Jomo Miller, press officer for the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

In New Hampshire, when it comes to legislation, some state representatives have introduced bills that could help transfer at least part of the financial responsibility to the state, but nothing has passed to date. Jordan argues that funding could come from tourism and hospitality revenues. He says he has not seen much support for this idea, which would require introducing a bill to allocate a certain amount for search and rescue each year.

“I never understand their reluctance to fund [search and rescue],” Jordan says. “It’s not a lot of money at the state level, and [the state legislature is] always sympathetic to our cause, but they never act on it.”

That might be changing. In early 2020, New Hampshire state representative David Love (R–6th) introduced bill HB1596-FN-A, which would allow NHFG to solicit voluntary donations at outdoor retailers, such as Eastern Mountain Sports or REI.

“To help keep NHFG going, we have to come up with a way to get them more money,” says Love, a recreational hunter. “[The department] does a great job. They just need more money so other responsibilities don’t get neglected.”

Love’s bill is currently under review with the House Committee on Fish and Game and Marine Resources, but he is optimistic the state will support it because the donations would be voluntary.

“I think, for the most part, the hiking community will step up and help us out,” Love says.

The federal government could also do more to fund rescues, officials say. New Hampshire receives no financial support for search and rescue from Washington D.C., despite nearly half the state’s annual rescues occurring in the White Mountain National Forest, a public land area managed by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS).

When AMC reached out to the USFS for comment, we received the following response from press officer Babete Anderson: “Nationally, search and rescue operations are generally the responsibility of state and local authorities; however, we do commonly assist when requested [by sending people and equipment].”

Jordan surmises the federal government’s resistance to formal aid is based on not wanting to set a precedent. If USFS or the U.S. Department of Agriculture, USFS’s parent agency, started to fund rescues in the White Mountains, it would have to pay for rescue efforts in every national park, national monument, and national forest in the United States, he says. The USFS, Jordan adds, allocates most of its budget to fighting wildfires, leaving little extra to fund search and rescue.

Instead, USFS has responded by stationing rangers, and sometimes volunteers, at five major trailheads in the White Mountains—Appalachia, Old Bridle Path, Ammonoosuc Ravine, Welch–Dickey, and Champney Falls—during peak hiking season. These representatives try to intervene before hikers head out onto the trail, mitigating any issues they spot. Most of the time, they’re looking for red flags, such as improper footwear, an inadequate water supply, or if someone is displaying signs of anxiety. Volunteers can’t outright refuse to let unprepared hikers continue up the trails, but the hope is their advice helps prevent some emergencies from happening.

“At the trailhead, we’re supposed to act as a prevention piece,” says Joyce Jardin, the volunteer coordinator for the White Mountain National Forest. “Our overall mission is to maintain hiker safety, as well as preserve the wilderness for all visitors.”

 

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AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION

Without sufficient funding, NHFG relies heavily on volunteers—from USFS but also from AMC, AVSAR, PVSAR, and even the National Guard.

In the White Mountains, AMC plays a unique role in search and rescue efforts, thanks to the organization’s longstanding presence in more remote wilderness areas. With eight high-elevation huts fully staffed in the summer and fall (some maintained by caretakers in the off-season), plus 14 backcountry campsites and shelters and two base lodges in the heart of the National Forest, AMC shoulders much of the frontline work in educating visitors: providing route recommendations and advice to hikers; fielding distress calls; and assisting with locating, rescuing, and recovering those who end up in trouble.

An injured hiker could wait hours for rescue services to locate them, reach them, and figure out how to get them to safety. The quick response from AMC staff in remote locations shortens that wait, sometimes saving lives. “If there is something we can provide in the first hour, it’s good to have us there,” says James Wrigley, AMC’s Highland Center general manager. And while the huts should never be treated as a plan B by risky hikers, first and foremost, they are a refuge, Wrigley says.

In one case, a group of four girls were seperated from their group while hiking the Franconia Ridge Trail. Three of the four made it to Greenleaf Hut safely, notifying AMC staff that the fourth had gotten lost off trail because visibility was poor. AMC deployed a search and rescue team immediately, and was able to get a head start to helping the lost girl. (She was found about 100 feet off the trail and taken back to the hut where she stayed the night to warm up and recover, hiking out the next day.)

All AMC hut and shelter staff—or “croo,” as they’re known—are certified in Wilderness First Aid, as well as in search and rescue tactics, such as litter carrying. Evacuating one injured person from the backcountry requires between 18 and 24 people, separated into groups of six, to alternate who’s carrying and who’s resting at any given time. “And if you have to carry more than 3 miles, you’ll need to have more people,” Wrigley says.

AMC’s participation is considered voluntary, meaning NHFG doesn’t pay AMC for equipment, labor, or training. Beyond critical AMC operating budget resources, Thayer and Wrigley work to secure grants from the NHOC, similar to PVSAR.

Better cellular service allowing distressed hikers to dial for help from remote locations has also contributed to the rise in the number of rescues in recent years, officials say. Many such calls come into the front desks at AMC’s huts and lodges.

“We get a lot of calls to look for lost hikers, people who are ready to call 911 because their friends haven’t returned yet,” Wrigley says. “Part of our job is to make a judgment as to when to actually make a call and when to sit and wait a little longer.”

Factors Wrigley weighs include the age and medical history of the potential rescuee, how much gear the person has, and the weather forecast. In some cases, responders are connected directly to the person who called for help; if the caller doesn’t seem to be in a panic, has the proper equipment to camp overnight, and the weather is fair, responders may opt to wait until the next day to send help.

The same goes for determining whether a helicopter is necessary to extract someone from the backcountry. “The situation has to be life-threatening if we’re dealing with extreme weather or a life-or-death injury,” Jordan says. “Those are the times we call the helicopter.” Luckily, helicopter fees, which in 2019 totaled $190,000, are waived thanks to an agreement with the National Guard, which exchanges use of its helicopters for access to the White Mountains for training exercises. That is, for now.

“Their training level and skill sets really benefit from flying in the White Mountains in these sometimes extreme weather conditions,” says Jordan. “I do worry about the day that the government says, ‘No more,’ and we’ll have to pay for this resource. That’s why we use their services only in life-threatening circumstances, because there are laws stating no state can benefit from a government asset free of any charge.”

All parties agree: the best way to manage search and rescue costs is by preventing emergencies from happening in the first place. Jordan advises that all outdoor recreationalists—hikers, bikers, skiers, and beyond—always carry the 10 essentials. Thayer underscores the importance of keeping a close eye on weather and trail reports and letting someone back home know where you’re going, including your parking location and the trails you plan to take, with whom you’re hiking, and when you plan to return.

“The resources are there,” Thayer says. “It’s important, though, to remember that Mother Nature can throw a curveball at you. You should always be prepared for the ‘what ifs,’ even if it’s your 100th time going out.”


NEW HAMPSHIRE SEARCH AND RESCUE STATISTICS, 2008 TO 2018:

$2,500: average cost for one rescue

1,890: rescues led

$3.1 million: rescue costs covered

$180,000: annual SAR budget from recreational licenses

$100,000–$150,000: average annual revenue from Hike Safe cards

WHO?

62% climbers/hikers

14% runaways

10.5% hunters, fishers, ATVers, boaters

7% skiers

6.5% swimmers

HALF (roughly) are N.H. residents

65% are men

 

WHY?

31% got hurt/sick

24% fell

23% got lost

14% poor judgment / preparation

3% drowned

3% fatigue

2% drugs & alcohol

 

WHERE?

48% of rescues occur in the White Mountain National Forest


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Kelleigh Welch

Kelleigh is managing editor of AMC Outdoors.