COULD YOU PAY FOR A HELICOPTER RIDE? SHOULD YOU?
Note: I wrote this before the North American recreation community reached somewhat of an opinion consensus about our system of mostly free (taxpayer supported) backcountry rescue. While I agree our system is workable, I still think fees could have a place, but it’s a tricky issue. At any rate, I trust I’m allowed to change my mind once every decade. Thus the opinion below is included for historical purposes, I feel much differently now and believe all rescue in North America should be virtually “free.” L.D. 2015
We climb, hike and ski the backcountry for many reasons. But the feelings of freedom and well-being we get are at the top of the list. You can’t beat a crampon climb up a swooping snow gully to a summit, then launching off for a long ski run; or watching the sunrise from a summit; or hiking a long ridge high above the timber. Indeed, our sport is a terrific gift.
But mountaineering involves risk, and occasionally a mountaineer must be rescued. This gets expensive — you’d have to be Bill Gates to pay for the more costly rescues. Fortunately for those of us without the bucks of the Bill, policy in most (if not all) states mandates rescue of those in need — with no requirement for payment. In our National Parks, a similar policy (which may soon change) is to only bill for rescues resulting from gross negligence, radical stupidity, or illegal activities. Other parks have similar policies, and bills are rarely issued. This entitlement program is noble but problematic.
During the winter of 1986-1987, Summit County in Colorado used up its whole emergency budget digging out avalanche victims. Last year, rescues in Denali Park cost more than $405,000, and we taxpayers picked up the tab (Denali now has a climber’s fee that takes care of most rescue expenses).
Why, with a government so tight on funds, should Gortex gadabouts get a free ride? You could argue that backcountry skiers deserve the same treatment as any other citizen. For example, if you get rescued from a flood, you probably won’t be asked to pay — even if you chose to build your house on a flood plain. We pay taxes, so why shouldn’t we get some back in the form of subsidized rescue?
Yet we rave about how self reliant we are, and that’s the truth for most of us. We do not expect the government to hold our hands and pay our bills. What’s more, uncompensated rescue costs are ammunition for those who would limit our access to the backcountry. Considering the above, it’s my opinion that we should must take responsibility for rescue costs though special funds and insurance.
Strides have been made. If you travel around the country making mountain forays, you can join the American Alpine Club and you’re automatically covered by their rescue insurance to at least some extent. The Alaskan Alpine Club also sells rescue insurance. Colorado has a law that places a portion of every hunting and fishing license fee into a state rescue fund. In 1992, this was expanded to include snowmobile and all-terrain-vehicle registrations, and presently you can buy an inexpensive certificate “CORSAR Card” for just the rescue fund. If the holder of a such a license or registration is rescued, the cost of the rescue can be absorbed by this fund. All a backcountry skier needs to do is buy a fishing license, and the costs of a rescue will be born by the fund. Denali and Rainier Parks will test a plan next spring that would require mountaineers to have rescue insurance when they use park lands. (It’s a little known fact that commercial operations in our National Parks already are required to carry a bond for rescue costs, and the Denali program will be an extension of that policy.)
While the National Park plan and funds such as Colorado’s are excellent steps, they are not ultimate solutions. The problem is that these methods of generating funds are unfair. They only address certain user groups. After all, should not a hiker who gets rescued, perhaps because of stupidity or perhaps not, bear the same responsibility as a climber? What about parents enjoying a glass of wine in their motor home while little Johnny explores the local bear habitat? And is everyone going to buy insurance? While the image of climbers and backcountry skiers as crazy risk takers still circulates among parts of our culture, I don’t adhere to the treatment of mountaineers as a special group. Snowmobilers; hikers; kayakers; grandparents; they all take risks.
Remember the feeling of being on a winter trail—totally self reliant—with everything you needed to survive? Perhaps you were breaking trail through dark timber, every noise muffled by snow cloaked conifers. Considering politics these days, I don’t blame people who take a similar dark trail of political apathy. But we use federal land with impunity, with little thought to who pays for our mistakes; for trailhead work; for trail building. We must get off the dark trail, get involved, and work for a backcountry users certificate system in every state. Such a system could finance a rescue fund, as well as things such as trail maintenance.
Anathema? Government has an abysmal track record with this sort of thing. I’m not a big fan of bureaucracy. But I’m not talking about heavy regulation, just a system similar to OHV, hunting, and fishing licenses. Those systems work in most states. Why not extend such programs to everyone? The alternative is possible limits to our land use rights, and reinforcement of the view (sometimes true) that rescued backcountry skiers are freeloading. Moreover, without a license or permit system, we run the risk of rescue insurance being taken over by private sector insurance companies, and having costs escalate out of control. Worse still, a tax could be levied on outdoor gear. Such a tax would be unfair, since not all shoppers need rescue insurance. A “certificate” system would involve us as responsible self-reliant citizens. Reality should reflect our self-image.
(A version of this article was published in Couloir Magazine, January 1994.)