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Proposed House Bill 256 requires hikers to pay for their own rescue

New Hampshire Fish and Game Conservation officers carry a hiker off Mount Monadnock in June 2011 after the hiker sustained a lower leg injury while hiking the Marlborough Trail.

New Hampshire Fish and Game Conservation officers carry a hiker off Mount Monadnock in June 2011 after the hiker sustained a lower leg injury while hiking the Marlborough Trail. Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

A bill in the New Hampshire House that would fine hikers for search and rescue operations is getting mixed support by some of the emergency officials responsible for scouring the area’s trails for those who get lost.

House Bill 256, introduced by Representative Gene Chandler of Carroll County, proposes three ways to raise revenue for N.H. Fish and Game’s search and rescue program. Having hikers foot the bill for their own rescue is chief among them.

“Any person determined by the department to have acted negligently in requiring a search and rescue response by the department shall be liable to the department for the reasonable cost of the department’s expenses for such search and rescue response,” the bill reads.

Hikers can be exempt from having to pay the fee for rescue, however, if they present a valid hunting or fishing license, an OHRV, snowmobile or boat registration, or what the bill refers to as a “hike safe card.”

The establishment of a hike safe card means that, if presented upon rescue, a hiker wouldn’t face a fee. The bill proposes that the card be sold at a one-time fee of $18, of which $15 will go to the search and rescue fund. The hike safe card is the second means of revenue proposed by the bill.

The expense to the hiker will vary on a sliding scale based on the actual cost of the rescue operation. For a $500 to $999 rescue operation, the hiker would be charged $350. Fees charged to the hiker can reach up to $1,000 for rescue operations that cost $1,500 or more. The bill states that there are 35 rescues per year in N.H. that cost more than $1,500. Assuming the number of rescues remains consistent, the fines against hikers would bring in $35,000 annually in revenue for the Fish and Game Department’s search and rescue program.

The final source of revenue as proposed by the bill is a $10 surcharge on all fines that violate Fish and Game Department laws.

According to the bill, yearly revenue for the program from all sources is expected at $57,000. If approved, the bill would take effect on July 1, 2013.

While New Hampshire’s White Mountains remain the primary location for the state’s hiking traffic, Mount Monadnock still sits near the top of the list of the world’s most climbed mountains. Other popular destinations in the region include Pack Monadnock and Crotched Mountain.

Patrick Hummel, manager of Monadnock State Park, referred questions regarding the proposed bill to the N.H. Division of Travel and Tourism and Assistant Director Amy Bassett.

Bassett said it’s hard to say how this bill would affect the hiking industry in New Hampshire if passed, but ultimately it probably wouldn’t have much of an impact.

A concern raised in opposition to the bill is that hikers would be more reluctant to call for help if they thought they would be charged for the rescue. Bassett said she believes this wouldn’t be the case.

“If you’re in a situation where you need help, you’re going to call for help,” she said in a phone interview on Wednesday.

Bassett said that the Division of Travel and Tourism supports the attempt to resolve the lack of funding for a very useful program.

Francestown Fire Chief Larry Kullgren, who responds to rescue calls on Crotched Mountain if the police department needs assistance, thought that reluctancy to make a rescue call may be a factor.

“Unfortunately there is a possibility that no phone call may be [made],” Kullgren said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “[The hikers] may think they can self-rescue themselves, and may re-evaluate the situation before they make the call.”

Crotched Mountain, which has a hiking trail in Greenfield, the old ski trails in Francestown and the current ski trails in Bennington, doesn’t get as much hiking activity as other areas around the state. But Kullgren said that at least once a year the fire department responds to a rescue call.

He said all 911 calls are fielded by police, and sometimes it takes a single officer to respond to a rescue call from Crotched. If the police department is unable to locate the person, then the fire department is called to aid.

Kullgren said that responding to rescue calls can be difficult at times, since some hikers tend to move around after they’ve made a rescue call, which makes them harder to locate.

“They get nervous and they feel the best thing to do is to keep moving,” Kullgren said.

He added that modern Smart phones sometimes have GPS tracking devices, so calls placed to the police station can be located easily.

Greenfield Police and Fire would also respond to Crotched Mountain in the case of a lost hiker. Greenfield Fire Chief Loren White said in a phone interview on Wednesday that he has mixed feelings regarding the proposed bill, and how rescuers and the N.H. Fish and Game Department determine a person’s level of negligence.

Kullgren said he also has mixed feelings on the bill.

“Sometimes locally, these people hiking may be very experienced, but suffer a broken leg or something,” Kullgren said.

If they were not able to produce a hike safe card or a registration issued by the state, they may still be considered negligent and responsible for paying for the rescue operation.

Brandon Lawrence can be reached at 924-7172, ext. 232 or blawrence@ledgertranscript.com. He’s on Twitter at @ blawrence914.

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