Rescued hiker billed $25,735

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CONCORD, N.H. (AP) | Stranded with a sprained ankle on a snow-covered mountain, Eagle Scout Scott Mason put his survival skills to work by sleeping in the crevice of a boulder and jump-starting evergreen fires with hand sanitizer gel.

He put plastic bags inside his boots to keep his feet dry as he sloshed through mountain runoff hidden beneath waist-deep snow. After three cold days in April, rescue crews spotted him hiking toward the summit of Mount Washington, the Northeast’s highest mountain.

New Hampshire officials praised his resourcefulness. So grateful was he for his rescuers that Scott, 17, sent $1,000 to the state.

Sometime later, New Hampshire sent him a bill: $25,734.65 for the cost of rescuing him.

New Hampshire is one of eight states with laws allowing billing for rescue costs, but only New Hampshire has made frequent attempts to do so, even strengthening its law last year to allow the suspension of hiking, fishing and driver’s licenses of those who don’t pay, according to an Associated Press review.

National search and rescue organizations insist that just the possibility of being billed is dangerous policy. Hikers may delay calling for help while they think about the cost, and that could put them — and the mostly volunteer corps of rescuers - at greater risk.

Other states with laws allowing them to recoup costs rarely, if ever, enforce them, largely for that reason, the AP found.

“If it had happened in Colorado, he would have been applauded for being able to survive for three days,” said Paul Woodward, president of Colorado’s Alpine Rescue Team. “New Hampshire is way out on their own on this one.”

New Hampshire officials counter that being properly prepared - not the size of the scout’s bill — should be the message about visiting wilderness areas. And, fish and game officials say, many of the state’s trailheads are posted with signs warning hikers they may be billed for rescue costs if they aren’t properly prepared.

Scott, now a high school senior in Halifax, Mass., has hired a lawyer to try to negotiate a settlement. Officials said he was found to be negligent because he veered off the marked path, was unprepared for melting snow that made a shortcut perilous, and went up the mountain with an injured ankle, not down.

The bill included more than $24,000 for a helicopter and labor provided by state fish and game officers. Volunteers provided their time at no charge.

Besides New Hampshire, Hawaii, Oregon and Maine have general laws allowing agencies to bill for rescues. Maine has attempted to recoup money a handful of times, but the bills were never paid. California, Vermont, Colorado and Idaho have laws allowing state agencies to bill in limited circumstances, but the laws are rarely enforced, and when they are, they draw a firestorm of protest from search and rescue groups.

Two years ago, the fire department in Golden, Colo., rescued a hiker from Kansas who had sprained his ankle and later billed him for $5,135. The outcry from national search and rescue groups influenced the city to change its policy and settle with the hiker for 10 percent of the bill.

Only New Hampshire has consistently billed people. Last year, lawmakers increased the likelihood of being billed when they lowered the legal standard from reckless to negligent to make it easier to collect.

Records obtained by the AP from a Freedom of Information Act request found that New Hampshire spent $413,543 on 275 rescue missions over the past two years. The state issued 16 bills for rescues totaling $41,435, with Mr. Mason’s $25,000 bill the largest. The state spent far more, $59,426, on a December 2007 search that was not billed. In that case, the body of the 70-year-old hunter was found four months later. His family was not billed.

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