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.
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.