State commission proposes federal funding for N.H. hiker rescues 

  • Rescuers came to the aid of two cold and dreary hikers in Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington on Sunday June 3. Courtesy of Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue Team

Monitor staff
Published: 10/8/2018 5:40:13 PM

A state commission is asking the federal government to pick up the tab for hiker rescues in the White Mountains – a bold proposal that comes as the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department faces mounting financial difficulties.

In an Oct. 2 letter to the state’s Congressional delegation, the study commission painted a portrait of an agency whose responsibilities have surpassed its resources as revenue from hunting and fishing licenses falls and rescues increase.

The letter asked the delegation to press for a meeting between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department “to work on crafting arrangements that would reimburse the State Of New Hampshire for costs incurred on federally owned land here in the state.”

New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest comprises 13.8 percent of the state; 47 percent of all mountain rescues carried out by the state Fish and Game department take place on that land, according to the letter.

Meanwhile, an increased population and “changing outdoor recreational interests” have overloaded the agency, which is now “stretched to a breaking point,” according to the letter, written by Sen. Kevin Avard, R-Nashua, who chairs the twelve-member committee.

“In our deliberations, we have concluded that the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department is woefully underfunded and we are committed to finding funding sources to rectify this shortfall,” Avard wrote.

Shifting the financial burden of mountain rescues to the federal government would help to do that, the letter said.

Avard, who provided the letter to the Monitor, declined to comment on it, citing ongoing work on the committee’s final report ahead of a Nov. 1 deadline.

It was not immediately clear how much the agency spends a year on rescue efforts; a Fish and Game official with knowledge was not available Monday. But the agency is self-funded, relying on hunting and fishing license revenue and federal funds distributed based on complex formulas to sustain itself.

That model is no longer sufficient, some members of the commission say.

“The citizens really need to know and connect the dots between how much service the department provides and yet how little we are asked to fund the department,” said Rick Van de Poll, an environmental consultant sitting on the commission.

The study group, created earlier this year and composed of legislators, Fish and Game officials and conservation and wildlife representatives, is tasked with looking at state-centered solutions to the agency’s budget woes as well.

The report has not been finalized yet, but some have suggested introducing a usage fees for non-motorized boaters, according to Van de Poll. Other members are pushing for appropriations from the state’s general fund Van de Poll added.

For hikers, a recently-introduced, voluntary “Hike Safe” insurance card brings in around $100,000 in revenue a year, officials say, but that number does not cover the rescue costs on its own.

In proposing reimbursement for rescues carried out on national forestland, Avard and the commission pointed to existing regulations as precedent. The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture is authorized to reimburse states for law enforcement activities; the commission is pushing for an agreement that would add rescues to that calculation.

Members of the federal delegation appeared receptive. In statements, Democratic Sens. Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen backed the proposed meeting between state and federal departments.

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