- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 20, 2004

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Search-and-rescue missions in Utah’s rugged backcountry don’t come cheap.

For years, lost hikers and wayward rafters sometimes have had to foot the bill when rescuers pluck them out of the red-rock wilderness. The problem is, many of them don’t pay.

As the number of rescues has risen along with tourism, local officials have struggled to find ways to fund the missions. Now Grand County is turning collection agencies on those who fail to pay.

“We had to do something,” said Sgt. Kent Green with the sheriff’s department in Grand County, where it costs $245 just to send rescue crews out the door.

Each of Utah’s 29 counties calculates its search-and-rescue budget differently, but costs commonly range from $60,000 to $100,000. Just one difficult search can shatter the best financial plans.

Some rescuers worry that aggressive collections might cause people to continue wandering in dangerous wilderness rather than call for help if they find themselves stranded, stuck in a tight crevasse or in a rushing-water canyon.

“There’s too much passion the opposite way in the search-and-rescue community for me to believe there is a legitimate reason for charging each individual victim for their search,” said Jacki Golike, executive director for National Association of Search and Rescue. “That doesn’t solve any problems at all.”

Grand County, a community of 8,500 residents concentrated around the city of Moab, once averaged nine search-and-rescue missions yearly. That was two decades ago.

Now, with tourism having doubled, the county undertakes at least 80 missions each year, with a high of 120.

“We say they leave their brains at home sometimes,” said Kelly McGettingen, assistant manager with outfitter Moab Adventure Center, which offers its rafting clients a $15 insurance policy to cover search-and-rescue costs.

Utah is not the only place where lost hikers can be billed for rescues. Several states, including Idaho, Hawaii and New Hampshire, allow counties to issue bills. Some ski resorts in Oregon, Washington and Colorado also have charged for rescues.

The National Park Service does not bill for rescues but has considered it. The agency spent $3 million on rescues last year.

Collection laws have drawn protest from critics who view rescue operations as a tax-funded service, just like firefighting.

“It’s almost an entitlement,” said Miss Golike of the National Search and Rescue Association.

Sgt. Green, with Grand County, said sending a bill to a family who lost a loved one is a “big gray area” that makes him uncomfortable, “even though it has been done.”

He recalled a search for a missing 13-year-old boy that involved airplanes and helicopters, all-terrain vehicles and at least 50 volunteers. The effort ended four days later when searchers found the boy’s body.

The boy’s family received a bill for tens of thousands of dollars.

“They paid as much as they could,” Sgt. Green said.

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