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Who pays for rescue efforts when people are lost? Who should?

A few days ago, Kraig wrote about the three hikers lost on Mt. Hood. At the time of his post, one of the hikers had been found dead. The other two were still missing. Almost a week after they set out on their climb, they are still missing and most probably are dead. Because of this tragic situation, the question of who foots the bill for rescue efforts has come up once more.

Back in 2005, then Gadling blogger Erik Olsen wrestled with the question about who should pay--the lost hiker who hopefully is found--or tax payers? Olsen's musings came about after a hiker hurt his ankle while hiking in Colorado. Several fire departments rescued the hiker after he spent a night on the mountain. The sticker price for the rescue was $5,000. In this case, the fire departments wanted the hiker to pay.

Usually, the people who are getting rescued don't pay anything. But is that fair? Rescue attempts can be pricey. Consider this: From 1992 to 2007, the U.S. National Park Service spent $58 million on search and rescue efforts.

This recent Newsweek article echoes some of Erik's points. As the article highlights, the hard economics question of who should pay for rescue attempts has as many facets to consider as it always has.

While one might say that people who take risks by heading up a mountain top or straying off a path should pay up once he or she is found, there are other factors to keep in mind.

  • One is a concern that people may avoid calling for help until it's too late out of fear for what a rescue attempt might cost.
  • Some risks are unknown. A beautiful sunny day could go sour if the wind shifts, for example. Should people be punished when nature is at fault?
  • A large portion of rescue attempts are made by volunteers, therefore the cost is curtailed.
  • When fire departments and military units are part of rescue efforts, they often have hours to log towards rescues. A real live rescue helps them meet their quota.
  • Sometimes a rescue attempt may be launched even though the hiker is not in danger. A seasoned hiker may be holed up somewhere waiting for more favorable hiking conditions while a family member is frantic with worry.

With the knowledge that lost hikers are part of the outdoor scene, being financially proactive seems to be the best approach for handling costs before they occur. Colorado, for example, collects a small portion of the money from state recreational fees to put into a fund that is earmarked for search and rescue.

In Alaska, people who are mountain climbing up Mount McKinley pay $200 for the privilege.

Although planning for a tragic situation is never pleasant, it seems that in this case, planning ahead for the " just in case" is sound. Otherwise, at the worst possible moment, people will be faced with the question, "How much is a life worth?

Filed under: Climbing, Hiking, United States, News, Consumer Activism

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