N.H. toughens up its negligent hiker laws

Posted Dec. 30, 2008, at 9:07 p.m.

CONCORD, N.H. — Though neighboring states are more lenient, New Hampshire’s latest effort to penalize unprepared hikers is unlikely to turn tourists away.

New Hampshire’s Fish and Game Department for years has been charging unprepared hikers for the cost of rescuing them from the woods. It now has the power to revoke their driver’s licenses if the fines go unpaid, and can fine those who act only negligently instead of the harder to prove standard of recklessness.

In Maine, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has the authority to recover costs related to search-and-rescue operations from the person who was rescued or from a person who knowingly provided false information that led to a search operation, but it has only sought to recover such costs three times over the years.

Vermont doesn’t go after hikers for the cost of their rescues, according to Sgt. Tara Thomas, spokeswoman for the Vermont State Police, though some of the state’s ski areas do for skiers or snowboarders who are rescued from off-trail crashes.

A spokesman for the New Hampshire division of travel and tourism said the change in New Hampshire law won’t send hikers to other states.

“It is a pretty minor change from what’s already in place, so I don’t think it’s going to scare people off,” Tai Freligh said Tuesday. “I think it also falls into the whole idea of being a responsible traveler and visitor wherever you go and whatever you’re doing.”

Until recently, the money collected in New Hampshire did not reimburse the state; it went to a private, nonprofit organization that gives grants to private volunteer rescue groups. But facing tight budgetary constraints, the Fish and Game Department now keeps the money in its search and rescue account.

Officials estimate that of the 140 rescues a year, New Hampshire could seek reimbursement in about 40 cases, up from 10 under the previous law. The attorney general’s office is reviewing four cases under the new standard, most of which involve people who wandered from trails or campsites without supplies or flashlights.

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