Should the state bill careless backcountry users for searches?
By Kelly de la Rocha
When Stephen Mastaitis of Saratoga Springs started a winter hike up Mount Marcy, he never dreamed he’d be coming back down in a helicopter.
The fifty-eight-year-old lawyer and three others began the day hike bright and early on a February morning, and everything was fine until they got to the summit cone, where they encountered high winds and poor visibility. On the way down, Mastaitis strayed from the trail. He fell into a spruce trap (loose snow surrounding a tree), clawed his way out, and continued to wade through deep snow, only to discover he was lost and alone.
Forest rangers from the state Department of Environmental Conservation scoured Marcy until midnight before calling off the search due to severe weather. They resumed the search at first light.
After spending the night shivering in a snow hole he dug by hand, Mastaitis was found and flown off the mountain. Although fairly well prepared for the hike, he conceded that he made mistakes: he didn’t carry a compass, a whistle, or a space blanket; he wore low-cut hiking boots; and he allowed himself to get separated from his group.
The following weekend, forest rangers were called out three more times in the High Peaks. Two of those rescued were hikers who wound up spending a night outdoors—one on Algonquin, the other on the shoulder of Marcy. The third was a cross-country skier who wasn’t found until after dark. All three ventured into the backcountry alone.
The rash of rescues has fueled debate over whether careless backcountry travelers should be required to reimburse the state when rangers come to their aid. Not only are searches expensive, but the rangers often put their lives at risk.
“On a windy, snow-swept mountain, it’s very easy to lose your bearings. The trail gets blown over, it’s dark out, all you’re looking at is your fellow ranger’s headlamp, and you’re trying to guide off that while you’re trying to find the person that’s in need. So obviously we have to not succumb to the elements, and the dangers of falling off a cliff or into a drift are very real,” said Forest Ranger Captain John Streiff.
Several states have enacted laws allowing agencies to bill individuals for search-and-rescue services. Proponents say such laws ease the burden on taxpayers and motivate outdoor adventurers to get educated. Others argue that charging for rescues may make people in need reluctant to call the authorities. DEC has taken no position on the matter, but Streiff notes that even a delay in calling for help can have dire consequences.
“The longer people wait, they get that much more lost, or their injuries manifest. So if people are hesitating, it’s not a good thing for us,” he said.
In Oregon, careless hikers can be fined up to $500 for a rescue. Each county’s search-and-rescue team makes its own call about whether or not to enforce that law. Officers in Marion County don’t think it’s right to charge even the most reckless hikers.
“The majority of the people we find in the woods don’t mean to get lost,” remarked Sergeant William Sherburn of the Marion County Sheriff’s Department. “And unfortunately, there’s a lot of people that when we do [go out searching for them], it’s a body recovery because of our elements here, and I sure wouldn’t want to charge a family $500 because we went and located their deceased family member.”
New Hampshire’s Fish and Game Department has been empowered since 1999 to charge reckless hikers for the entire expense of their rescue. Kevin Jordan, the agency’s assistant chief of law enforcement, rebutted claims that charging for rescues will scare away tourists or deter people in need from seeking help. “We’re getting calls just as frequently as we always did,” he said.
Jordan said a rescue can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $60,000. Between 2006 and 2011, New Hampshire billed for thirty-eight rescues, to the tune of $83,000. Of that, the department has collected a little over $53,000.
Tony Goodwin, editor of the Adirondack Mountain Club’s High Peaks guidebook, believes that penalizing the careless could do some good. “As long as we accept the fact that we want to encourage people to use the backcountry, there are going to be accidents that have to be dealt with and there are going to be people who are unprepared, but perhaps the most grossly unprepared, unknowledgeable ones can suffer some consequences that perhaps [would] give pause for others,” he said.
But who decides whether or not a hiker is grossly unprepared? In New Hampshire, cases are reviewed by the rescuers and other agency staff, Jordan said.
“They just can’t send out a memo saying, ‘I think that what this guy was doing was foolish and he should be billed,’” he said. “They have to point to specific things: he didn’t have hiking gear; he didn’t have gear to stay out overnight; he didn’t have a flashlight; had no skills or no experience in the backcountry, no map or compass. There’s a lot of factors that play into that.”
Goodwin thinks the threat of a fine could give rangers leverage when they encounter unprepared trekkers on the trail. “The forest ranger could say, ‘Well, you realize in New York State there is this law, and since I have officially told you that you are inadequately prepared, it’s gonna make proving the case a whole lot easier,’” he said.
Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, worries that the prospect of being fined could make hikers hesitant to provide rangers with information about how they wound up needing rescue—facts that could be a valuable teaching tool.
“The rangers really like to know how the person got into the straits they got into,” he said, “but if the result is going to be a criminal citation and the cost of rescue, since you don’t have to incriminate yourself, would people talk to the rangers?”
Opponents of charging for rescues also argue that since the state encourages people to hike in the Adirondacks, search-and-rescue missions should be considered part of the cost of doing business.
“If you get yourself in a situation where you need to be rescued because you slipped on ice, you slipped on some wet leaves and when you tried to break your fall, you broke your forearm or something like that, that’s an accident, and the great majority of search-and-rescues happen either because of accidents or because people lose their way. They didn’t intend on losing their way.” Woodworth said.
Although Woodworth believes a fine might be in order in extreme cases of negligence, he proposed another course of action: “I think it would make more sense, if you got into a situation [where you needed rescuing], if DEC basically required you to pay a fee for a mandatory backcountry-education course,” he said.
Streiff said rangers often do encounter Adirondack hikers who could use a little education. “It’s such a popular place and it’s so close to such major population centers, no matter how much education, how much outreach, whatever’s on our website, people are still going to come and not be as prepared as we’d like them,” he said.