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N.H. Senate approves hiking card that will help fund search-and-rescue operations

FILE - In this April 28, 2009, file photo, Scott Mason grimaces as he gets ready to go to the hospital in Pinkham Notch, N.H. Mason was fined $25,000 by the state for the cost of his three-day search and rescue.  (AP Photo/Jim Cole, File)

FILE - In this April 28, 2009, file photo, Scott Mason grimaces as he gets ready to go to the hospital in Pinkham Notch, N.H. Mason was fined $25,000 by the state for the cost of his three-day search and rescue. (AP Photo/Jim Cole, File)

The New Hampshire Senate approved a hike safety card yesterday in a move supporters hope will revive the state’s search-and-rescue fund that for years has operated at a deficit.

Now the bill heads to the governor’s office, where it needs the final sign-off before the Fish and Game Department can begin selling the voluntary cards.

Hikers who purchase the safety card for an annual fee of $25 per individual and $35 for a family will not be billed if they need to be rescued, even if the Fish and Game Department determines that the hikers acted negligently.

“This acts as a backup because even the most sophisticated hiker . . . can make a mistake,” said Fish and Game Director Glenn Normandeau. “Plus, it is going to help us stay on our game, if you are someone who sees the benefit as a way to contribute to the organization.”

All but $3 of the card sales will be funneled into the department’s search-and-rescue fund that covers missions ranging from searches for lost hikers to dives for drowning victims.

People who already purchase hunting and fishing licenses or OHRV, snowmobile or boat registrations are exempt, because $1 of those fees already go into the search-and-rescue fund.

Search and rescue has become increasingly expensive, said Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat. And as sales of licenses and registrations have plateaued, the fund isn’t keeping up with the growing expense.

In years past, the fund has operated at a deficit, at times running more than $200,000 over the roughly $140,000 budget, Normandeau said. When that happens, Fish and Game has to dip into its general fund to make up the difference.

Since the search-and-rescue fund is negative virtually every year, it adds up to a steady drag on the general fund.

“One time is one thing,” Normandeau said. “But over the course of five, six years, that is 1 million dollars not in the Fish and Game fund that should be used to fund our main activities, which are fish and wildlife work.”

Between 2006 and 2012, Fish and Game conducted roughly 957 search-and-rescue missions at a cost of almost $1.8 million. According to the department, climbers and hikers use more than half of the search-and-rescue services, followed by hunters, anglers, boaters, snowmobilers and ATV riders, which use roughly 14 percent of the services combined.

Since each rescue operation is different, the cost varies widely and can run anywhere between $100 and $50,000 per mission, Normandeau said. In recent years, the department has spent an average of $360,000 annually on the operations. And the rescue costs have been increasing steadily each year simply because more people are out there, Normandeau said.

To help Fish and Game recoup some of those expenses, in 2008 the Legislature passed a law allowing the department to seek reimbursement from hikers who need a rescue if it determines they acted negligently. But even recouping those billing costs has been difficult, said Sen. Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican.

“The whole thing is just a nightmare,” Normandeau said.

Now, negligent hikers with the card in hand would avoid the possibility of footing an expensive rescue bill, and the card will get hikers to contribute to the fund where they haven’t in the past.

“Hikers aren’t paying very much now . . . hopefully it will encourage hikers to do so,” Bradley said. “I am looking forward to being the first to buy the card.”

John Bigl, a Milford resident who organizes outings for a New England Hikers meet-up, said he doesn’t mind paying $25 for the card to offset search-and-rescue costs. He, his wife and the group have talked about the card at their weekly hikes.

“I really don’t mind pitching into that, even if it involves rescuing someone irresponsible,” he said. Negligence “can be determined later. The first priority is to get them out of the woods.”

But, he said, it seems like the card is geared toward hikers who are prepared as opposed to those who are negligent, he said.

Bigl’s group isn’t the only one discussing the card; topic threads have popped up on hiking websites, ranging from New Hampshire mountaineering Facebook groups to Vermont hiking forums.

Since the cards are voluntary, the department can’t predict how much revenue they will generate.

“It will hopefully, over time, make some kind of significant contribution to the fund,” Normandeau said.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at amorris@cmonitor.com.)

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