Who pays for all the rescues in the White Mountains?

  • The Appalachian Trail along Franconia Ridge. Wikimedia Commons

Monitor staff
Published: 7/16/2021 12:07:59 PM

Lilian Rehder was heading down from the summit of Middle Sugarloaf Mountain last weekend when she slipped on the wet trail and over-extended her leg.

The injury was bad enough that 71-year-old Rehder, of Lexington, Massachusetts, couldn’t hike the remaining 1.3 miles back to the trailhead. New Hampshire Fish and Game conservation officers and volunteers from the Pemi Valley Search and Rescue Team carried her out on a litter.

It was a 2.5-mile hike near Twin Mountain that Rehder had done many times before. She packed all the necessary gear, but she had one other item that actually helped pay for her rescue: a Hike Safe card.

New Hampshire’s White Mountains attract thousands of hikers from across New England each weekend and not every journey ends well. Emergency rescuers are called to help when people are injured, lost, or even just unprepared for the conditions.

These rescues can be costly and some hikers who are deemed negligent get sent the bill. Most rescues are paid for through a hodgepodge of Fish and Game registration fees and sales of the state Hike Safe cards.

“The Hike Safe Card is not an absolute guarantee that you are not going to be billed,” said Colonel Kevin Jordan, Chief of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Law enforcement division.

However, Jordan said the department has never billed anyone for a rescue who had a Hike Safe card with them.

“Most of the people who would buy a voluntary card are responsible people,” Jordan said.

Its main purpose is to provide a way for hikers to contribute to the Search and Rescue fund. As of now Jordan said, he is happy with the number of people currently buying the passes, but relying on the pass sales can cause some budgeting issues.

“You never know how much it is going to make,” said Jordan.

The pass costs $25 per person or $35 for a family.

Between 2009 and 2019 the state averaged about 190 rescues a year, which cost about $300,000 annually. While New Hampshire may be one of the few states to bill negligent hikers, many other states are struggling to fund their rescue operations. Revenue to the rescue fund without the hike pass amounts to around $180,000 per year through fees, Jordan said.

State officials bill a negligent hiker for a rescue about 10-15 times a year, according to Lieutenant James Kneeland, head of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Advanced Search and Rescue Team.

“Negligence isn’t really a mistake, it’s a conscious mindset but you choose to ignore. You know it’s dangerous to do what you are about to do,” said Jordan. “It’s never accidental.”

Jordan recommends doing research on the trail you plan to hike and checking out the Hike Safe website, which lists the items to bring and offers safety tips.

One criticism of the billing procedure is that it may stop those in danger from calling for help, however Kneeland said he’s never heard of that happening.

“I don’t think the people out their doing something stupid even know about billing until after the fact,” said Kneeland. Nor does Kneeland think people should worry about being billed in most cases.

“We want to help people who have legitimately gotten themselves lost or injured,” he said. “We want to help them out of their predicament, so my recommendation is to call.”

It turns out New Hampshire residents are about even with out-of-staters when it comes to rescues, Jordan said, but the numbers ebb and flow from season to season.

On thing Jordan would like to see is the federal government contribute to the rescue fund, since nearly half of all rescue missions occur at White Mountain National Forrest. Until then, Jordan urges people using the outdoors to spend a few dollars on a Hike Safe card.

One thing to keep in mind when buying the pass is that it expires on the 31st of December regardless of when it is bought.

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