In some countries and states, hikers contribute to search and rescue costs. Should the Adirondacks do the same?
By Mike De Socio
Anyone who spent time in the Adirondacks in 2020 probably doesn’t need official statistics to tell them it was as crowded as ever. A record-breaking number of hikers and visitors — as many as 78 million across the state’s parks, trails and campgrounds — also led to a spike in hiker rescues, reaching an all-time high.
In New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Regions 5 and 6, which cover the Adirondack Park, there were 324 rescues in 2020, almost 100 more rescues from the year before (230), according to data provided by the DEC. That’s compared to 177 rescues in 2011.
Beyond the obvious safety concerns, this increase in rescues is also straining resources and forest rangers.
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“The increasing demand on [rangers’] services is leading to fatigue and burn-out of forest rangers as they continuously try to do more with less,” said Peter Morehouse, the Police Benevolent Association of New York State representative for forest rangers.
It begs the question: What can be done to keep hikers safe and relieve some of the pressure on forest rangers?
Some U.S. states and parts of Europe have implemented a solution in the form of “hiker insurance” cards. Purchasing such a card is voluntary, but encouraged as a way to raise money for search and rescue operations. At the same time, it protects hikers from being held responsible for the cost of their rescues.
In this first of two parts, the Adirondack Explorer will look into whether the Adirondacks should adopt a similar solution to prevent harm and help budgets.
A new funding stream in New Hampshire
For decades, search and rescue efforts in New Hampshire were funded by a $1 surcharge on ATV, snowmobile and boat registrations in the state. But the funds consistently came up short.
So about seven years ago, the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department started to give hikers in the White Mountains a voluntary option to contribute, called the Hike Safe Card. It costs $25 per person, or $35 for a family, and serves as a funding source for rescue costs that are sometimes charged to negligent hikers.
The state sold 7,752 cards in 2020, generating more than $200,000 to support search and rescue efforts, according to Lt. James Kneeland, the search and rescue team leader and Hike Safe coordinator for the state. That money is used to cover time and mileage expenses for conservation officers during rescue missions (which also involve unpaid volunteers). By the end of 2020, the revenue generated by the Hike Safe Cards actually left the department with a surplus, Kneeland said, that was used to replace aging equipment.
“The card doesn’t really give them a ‘get out of jail card,’ so to speak, so it’s really a feel-good way to contribute,” said Kneeland. Only about 5 percent of rescued hikers are billed in a given year. He noted that most hikers who buy the card aren’t the negligent type who would be charged for a rescue, anyway.
Before Hike Safe Cards, when New Hampshire’s search and rescue efforts often weren’t adequately funded by the license surcharges, the program was often forced to dip into the department’s general fund, Kneeland said. Now, although the revenue is somewhat unpredictable from year to year, Kneeland said the cards remain popular among hikers and consistently generate enough funds to cover search and rescue costs.
“For right now it seems to be working, and we haven’t seen it lag, so I think we’ll just ride the wave,” Kneeland said.
Raising revenue in Colorado
The “Search and Rescue Cards” that hikers can purchase in Colorado are not insurance in the traditional sense, either. Whether or not a hiker has the card, they’ll never be billed by the rescue teams.
“It’s a type of insurance in that it’s ensuring that Colorado’s services remain free,” said Perry Boydstun, the search and rescue program manager at the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. (Rescued hikers, however, could still receive a bill if a medical helicopter or ambulance is called to their rescue).
These $3 cards — along with a 25-cent surcharge on hunting and fishing licenses in the state — collectively raise about $650,000 per year to support county-run, often volunteer search and rescue teams across the state, according to Boydstun.
“It’s really a very small cost for the tremendous service these people provide,” Boydstun said.
The license surcharges have been in place since 1987 and have remained the same price ever since, while the hiker cards were introduced in 2006. Boydstun says that the program was controversial at its inception, but it has proven successful in reimbursing rescue teams for training and equipment costs. The state reports selling more than 15,000 cards in 2020. Even so, Boydstun says it’s not enough money, and doesn’t cover certain expenses like workers’ comp or mental health services.
“We know the total need is much higher,” Boydstun said.
Hikers often ask why they need to buy a search and rescue card if it doesn’t serve as a direct form of insurance. But they’re often “delighted” to contribute once they learn where the money goes, Boydstun said.
“I hear stories day after day, people that just want to tell me their friend, their son, their aunt, their uncle — someone was affected because of search and rescue,” Boydstun said.
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Adaption to the Adirondacks
It is unclear exactly how much money goes to supporting search and rescue operations each year in New York state; the Department of Conservation declined to provide a breakdown of costs, noting rescues are one of many duties for forest rangers.
“DEC does not put a price on the value of human life and does not calculate the cost of each type of search and rescue,” the agency said in a statement.
The DEC also did not say whether it would support a version of the hiker insurance cards that have seen success in other regions.
Morehouse, of the forest rangers union, said there is more support for preventative measures than there is for the idea of hiker insurance.
The forest rangers “have concerns that hiker insurance can have a negative impact in that people may be less likely to report injuries or lost hikers for fear of the costs associated with a rescue should they be found responsible,” Morehouse said.
It’s worth noting that in both Colorado and New Hampshire, hikers are rarely, if ever, billed for their rescues, regardless of whether they have a hiker insurance card. But the perception might be enough to have a negative impact.
“Problems cannot be addressed and remedied if they are kept hidden out of fear of sanctions or repercussions,” Morehouse said.
Is education enough to curb backcountry rescues?
Read the second part of this 2-part series.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with more recent numbers of DEC-led backcountry rescues for Regions 5 and 6 in the Adirondack Park.
Thank you for the article. Ive been a 46er since the mid 90’s and many
Times over since. My love for the high peaks region and experience in our beloved mountains stems from my relationship with an uncle, who served for many years as a ranger. Many a night around a campfire with uncle michael and his colleagues were spent listening to “tails from the trail”. Shortcomings of the state, headshaking cautionary tales of unprepAred tourist hikers in over their heads, and the tales of glory and serenity that called them
To their post and ultimately kept them in the adks until their knees and backs unforgivingly insisted otherwise. As such i have a few insights. 1) no problem paying some stipend to offset the increase in demand for help. Not an issue. 2) those of us experienced backcountry enthusiasts who have seen the increase in traffic, particularly amongst those more likely to be unprepared, unfit, and ultimately in need of assistance are likely already doing a part. Last year alone i personally harnessed and hoisted and injured hiker out and down safely from pyramid/sawtweeth, cleaned, anesthetized and sutured and badly lacerated foot at the wolf-jaw lean too and provided warm clothing and headlamps to teenage hikers attempting a return to the amr in shorts/ shortsleeves with sub 40 temps And only a lighter to guide the path – which of course is NOT possible! ♂️
My point is, we experienced outdoor enthusiasts, in one way or another are all, already doing our part. The money is nominal and a fine idea, but lets keep in mind we are all, already, pulling in the same direction when it comes to the safety of our less experienced neighbors and the preservation of our sacred mountain trails and forests! Stay safe
I agree with what Mike says, and I have often provided instruction to lost people, have given dry clothing to soaked hikers, have put out campfires, have carried out other people’s trash, and have called in the rangers at times when something wasn’t right. Frankly, I think the increase in rescues has to do with numbers of people overall, and not that they are less knowledgeable than in the past. There have always been lots of unprepared people, but now rescue is just a phone call away. One suggestion I have is to post at some trailheads large maps that can be photographed so that people can take a smartphone photo and have some idea of where they are going. I think that is the #1 problem I see in the woods–lack of navigation skills and no map or guidebook. #2 is lack of good flashlights. I don’t think asking people to pay for ranger support will solve those oversights.
MITCH EDELSTEIN says
I am concerned that charging people for rescue, will discourage people, who need to be rescued, to make the call until they are really in trouble.
As a former EMT, we would ask: “When did this problem first appear? Invariably, we would be told that it started hours before they finally called. We do not need to encourage people to delay even more.
We all agree, better education, skills and a lot more common sense would improve the situation.
I recently returned from a trip to Wood Tikchik State Park In Alaska. It is a 1.6 million acre park with one ranger. The expectation is that if you’re going in, you need to be prepared to get out regardless oh what happens. While the ADKs are not Alaska, we need to create an expectation that the user needs to be self sufficient. Maybe a few high profile examples of reckless individuals having to pay for rescues would help to instill this message.
Education is part of the solution, but if people know that a rescue could cost them money it might be an incentive for them to be prepared in terms of both knowledge and equipment. “Money talks.”
I’m not so sure the threat of fines will make people be more prepared. Fines don’t seem to prevent people from using their cell phones while driving, or driving drunk, or speeding. The people who aren’t prepared don’t really know what they don’t know. In other words, they have no idea they are unprepared, and the dangers are just not apparent to them. For example, I have talked to many people who just will not believe that their cell phone flashlight is inadequate or that a paper map might be needed because there is no cell service. They just do not believe these things that are totally alien to their normal lives.
Hunters are required to learn firearms safety and have to prove they’d taken a hunter safety course before purchasing a license. Anyone venturing a certain distance in the woods (more than half mile, perhaps) should be required to have proof of map and compass training, or at least one person (leader) in a group. They should also be required to have a map and compass on them. Better yet, come up with a state required leadership course that focuses on map and compass, weather reading (without the cellphone), preparedness and survival skills.
The next level would be a GPS, but it works best when you know how to use it in conjunction with map and compass. If you take a waypoint of where your vehicle is parked, and know how to use a map and compass navigate back, Forest Rangers will be a lot less busy.
As for payment, I think when people make bad decisions the question of payment should at least come up. A few instances that come to mind are the guy who had to be rescued twice in the Oswegatchie when he got “froze in” first on a canoe trip, and next trying to retrieve it. The other was the couple who had to be rescued on Algonquin. Both made bad decisions, mainly concerning the weather, endangering themselves and others.