CONCORD, N.H. -- Hikers and others rescued in New Hampshire’s backwoods could pay several hundred dollars in fees to help dig the state’s search and rescue fund out of the red.
The idea got mixed reviews at a public hearing Thursday on a bill that could come to the aid of a search and rescue account that’s averaged an annual deficit of more than $100,000 since 2006.
House Republican Leader Gene Chandler of Bartlett, Senate Republican Leader Jeb Bradley of Wolfeboro and Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat, are among the high-profile sponsors looking for ways to help pay for searches and rescues besides fees paid by sportsmen.
"Unfortunately the people who are paying into the rescue fund are not taking the biggest advantage of it," Chandler told the House Fish and Game Committee.
"The people who come here and hike bear some responsibility," added D’Allesandro.
Hunters, anglers, boaters, snowmobilers and all-terrain vehicle riders currently pay 100 percent of the rescue costs though license fees to the Department of Fish and Game but averaged only 14 percent of the rescues since 2006.
Anyone rescued who possesses a current hunting, fishing or other outdoors license or buys a new hike safe card for $18 would not pay the minimum fee. The proposal also would establish a $10 surcharge on fines for fish and game law violations to go into the fund.
The minimum fee facing those rescued would be $350 if the rescue cost between $500 and $999. The fee rises to $600 if the rescue costs between $1,000 and $1,499. For rescues costing more, the fee would be $1,000.
Recent rescue costs ranged from about $200 to more than $50,000, according to the Department of Fish and Game.
Chandler and other sponsors said the account’s deficit could grow dramatically now that the New Hampshire National Guard has been told by its command in Washington to charge the state for its role in rescues. The Guard had covered the costs of using its helicopters and staff in the past with its training budget.
The cost to fly its two Black Hawk helicopters is $4,400 per hour for one and $5,600 per hour for the other, not counting personnel costs.
Volunteer groups that assist in the rescues oppose charging out of concern the lost or injured person will delay seeking help at the risk of greater injury to themselves and rescuers.
John Scarinza, president of the Randolph Mountain Club, said it was wrong to characterize hikers as not contributing to the effort when volunteer hikers played a key role in rescues. He said if the state bills people who need to be rescued, volunteers might decide the state should take over the entire operation. He said income estimates from the bill are uncertain and may be only $25,000.
"That’s $25,000 in revenue for a tremendous loss of good will," he said.
Susan Arnold of the Appalachian Mountain Club suggested instead tapping the money raised through a tax on restaurant meals and hotel room rentals. She said that would be fairer than singling out people who are rescued, who also include Alzheimer’s patients and lost children.
But D’Allesandro said New Hampshire can’t "glorify our state" to attract tourists and not find a way to pay for their rescue when they get lost.
"Volunteers are not going to fly that helicopter and they are not going to pay the $6,500 per hour," he said.
The agency has recovered some of its rescue costs by billing people determined to be negligent. Fish and Game Executive Director Glenn Normandeau said many of the people billed don’t pay.
"Collecting money is a nightmare for us," he said. "The person who simply writes the check is the exception, not the rule."