April 4, 2006

Lost in the US West? Better find your wallet

By Laura Zuckerman

SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Last October, avid mountaineer Tim Dopp and his teenage son set out for what they expected would be a day's climb of the highest peak in central Idaho's rugged Sawtooth Range.

It was the beginning of a two-day ordeal in which the Boise man and his son would be stranded on a narrow ledge near the summit of the 10,751-foot peak wondering if they would survive sub-freezing temperatures.

Summoned by a call from Dopp on his cell phone, five government agencies, 60 people and a high-altitude helicopter ended up being needed to lift the Dopps to safety.

While Dopp expected to be haunted by his errors in judgment that imperiled his son's life, he was taken by surprise last month when Custer County Sheriff Tim Eikens, the official overseeing the operation, sent him a bill for nearly $15,000.

"We need to step back as a state and maybe as a nation and consider how to finance these sorts of rescues," he said. "If we begin to bill the individual, it may become too costly and too worrisome for people to go anywhere but their own backyards."

He is consulting with agencies involved in his rescue as he considers whether to pay the bill.

Search and rescue experts say billing victims for the bulk of the tab for a rescue mission - staffed mostly by unpaid volunteers - is still rare in the American West where extremes in weather, terrain and forms of recreation make it inevitable that some will end up in dire straits.

The move by the Custer County sheriff has reignited the debate in the American West over who should pay to rescue the growing number of people who engage in high-risk activities. The issue is also under examination in other countries where adventure seekers have ended up in distress.


Just a handful of U.S. states have charge-for-rescue laws but most, including Idaho and California, target people who intentionally break rules, such as entering areas closed to the public.

Search and rescue organizations frown on making victims foot the bill, arguing fear of high costs will delay calls for help, exposing victims and rescuers to even greater risks.

But even as Western states spend millions marketing themselves as premier recreation destinations, cash-strapped local governments in vast but under-populated regions say they cannot keep pace with the rising number of recreation-related rescues.

Idaho's Custer County is a case in point. The Connecticut-sized county of 5,000 residents includes the state's highest peak and encompasses or abuts at least 10 mountain ranges, making it a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts.

"We're highly sought after for recreation but that also means we bear the brunt of rescues," said Sheriff Eikens.

With a modest annual search and rescue budget of about $5,000, Eikens is tiring of rescuing people who do not take necessary precautions. Last year, he oversaw the recovery of a snowboarder whose camera-equipped helmet allowed him to film his own death.

States that track such data, including Colorado and Oregon, say hikers are actually more likely to need rescue help than climbers. Mountaineers say many in the public do not appreciate such statistics and continue to see climbers as reckless daredevils.

"We believe most rescue activity is a public safety function," said Lloyd Athearn, deputy director of the American Alpine Club. "If I get into a car wreck and the police come to the wreck, I don't get a bill from the police officer for his time. So why should I get a bill from a county sheriff if I need a rescue?"

The National Park Service has periodically examined whether it should charge for search and rescue operations but so far has vetoed those proposals.

A series of widely publicized, disastrous climbs at Mount McKinley in Denali National Park in Alaska did prompt the park system in 1995 to require climbers planning to scale that 20,000-foot peak or Denali's Mount Foraker to register in advance and pay a fee, now set at $200.

Search and rescue expert Daryl Miller, district ranger at Denali National Park, said attaching a price tag to rescues would send the wrong message. At the same time, Denali rangers emphasize that the safety of the park's rescue teams comes first, so they may skip an especially treacherous effort.

"Rescue here is not guaranteed," said Miller. "Our motto has been: your emergency may not be our emergency."