Are New Hampshire’s Hike Safe Cards a Good Deal?

The State of New Hampshire has decided to partially fund its search and rescue (SAR) operations by offering cheap insurance to morons. Since this doesn’t sound like the best path to financial sustainability, does New Hampshire know something the rest of us don’t?

Historically, New Hampshire has had a difficult time funding the cost of its SAR operations. Since 1989, NH has taken $1 from every off-highway vehicle and boat registration to fund SAR. Seeing this as inadequate, in 1999 the state passed a statute permitting the Department of Fish and Game (DFG) to bill anyone who triggered an SAR response due to recklessness. The wording was changed from “reckless” to “negligent” in 2008. The law sparked some controversy and, in 2009, the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR) released a position statement in opposition to billing individuals for SAR. They stated that SAR is a moral obligation whose funding should come from the many and that the prospect of a large bill would potentially deter someone from calling in a rescue.

Despite NASAR’s position, the law still stands, though it doesn’t seem to have done much to solve the funding problem. According to DFG, since FY2006 its average annual operating deficit for SAR has been $101,446. DFG also claims that of the 150-200 annual SAR responses it provides to hikers, only a small portion of them are due to negligence, but hints that these are the most costly. “This small number of negligent hikers can present some very difficult, dangerous and expensive search and rescue missions; and it is those hikers who’ll be billed for rescues.” DFG also reports that although its funding is supported by off-highway vehicle registrations, 57% of its SAR operations have been for hikers and climbers. When SAR runs an operating deficit, it has to take money from hunting and fishing license revenues. In other words, hikers currently use a considerable share of SAR resources, but don’t pay in.

On June 4th, in an effort to better meet costs associated with SAR and to add some parity to how SAR is funded, the New Hampshire legislature passed HB 256. The bill has been sent to Governor Maggie Hassan for signature.

HB 256 revises RSA 206:26-bb to exempt certain people from paying the costs of an SAR response due to their own negligence. Folks who possess a current New Hampshire hunting and fishing license, an off road vehicle license, or a hike safe card won’t have to pay squat. The rest of us will have to pay the full price. How much? DFG reports that its average SAR mission costs $1,958. So a pretty good chunk of change; far less than the $25 ($35 for families) annual cost of a hike safe card.

So back to the original question. Is the hike safe card a good deal? Clearly, the answer is yes if you’re a novice or an idiot or both. But, if you’re an experienced, well-prepared hiker, then what’s the point of buying a hike safe card? You’re only responsible for paying for SAR if you act negligently and since you’re experienced and well-prepared, the probability of requiring an SAR operation due to your negligence will be quite low.

I think that New Hampshire would like us to think that buying a hike safe card is a good idea for everyone. Insurance only works if low-risk individuals buy in. If the only people who bought hike safe cards were high-risk dum-dums, New Hampshire would still get a little more cash than it currently does, but the costs of their SAR operations would likely still exceed the sum of the net proceeds from the cards and DFG would continue to have to draw from hunting and fishing license revenues. NH must be counting on a few responsible folks to buy the cards.

Looking strictly at cost-benefit, my conclusion is that hike safe cards are a good deal for everyone, but not for the most obvious reasons. There are two cost scenarios to compare and the benefit is the same for both: not having to pay full price for an SAR mission. The first cost scenario is well-defined; it’s $25 or $35 for a family. Compare this with the combined cost estimate of two risk factors.

The first is the very small probability of you, an experienced, well-prepared hiker, doing something obviously negligent, surviving, and needing an SAR operation. If this were the only risk, then I’d say buying the card is probably a bad deal. But there’s another cost to consider.

The next is the risk that you, an experienced, well-prepared hiker, has a freak accident, survives, needs an SAR operation, but despite your claims of responsible action, DFG determines that you acted negligently and bills you. Keep in mind that it’s in their best interest to try and recoup costs. Are you ready to fight DFG in court when they sock you with the bill? Just look at what happened to Eagle Scout Scott Mason, who got injured climbing to Mt. Washington, got injured and became lost, was rescued, and was presented with a $25,000 SAR bill because DFG determined that he should have turned back on the trail instead of trying to take a shortcut to get off the mountain. It took a full year for DFG to cease attempts to collect the bill.

DFG notes on its website that it goes through a rigorous process when it decides whether to bill a person for an SAR mission. “All Search and Rescue missions go through a review process involving guidelines established by the N.H. Attorney General’s Office. That process involves the mission’s supervisor within Fish and Game Law Enforcement, N.H. Fish and Game Department administration, and final concurrence through a review by the N.H. Attorney General’s Office. All cases are unique and not all will get billed.”

If you are an experienced, responsible hiker and trust these folks to make the right call on negligent behavior while ignoring the added pressure of trying to recoup costs, then I say go ahead and skip the hike safe card. Me? I’m mindful that being injured in the wilderness doesn’t always lead even experienced people to make clear-minded decisions and I’d rather not have to fight the New Hampshire bureaucracy in court. This more than makes up for being out $25. If hike safe cards are signed into law, I’m buying one.


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