In early December, Baxter State Park launched a rescue effort when a Canadian man didn’t return from a hike on Mount Katahdin. Because he had violated park policy, the park is passing the cost of the search and rescue — $10,000 — on to the man. This is likely to reignite a debate about charging for search and rescue, particularly when the person being helped was negligent.
This is a necessary, but difficult, debate. People who have accidents in the woods should be rescued, just as a house fire should be put out no matter the cause. But, when people are truly negligent while recreating, it is reasonable to have them bear a price for their rescue.
In the Baxter situation, two men from Ontario spent several days camping in the park in early December. They did not register to camp, which is required by park policy. Then, one of the men decided to climb Mount Katahdin on his own. He did not register for the day-hike and had only minimal gear, including a tent. A park ranger came upon his companion sitting in a car behind a ranger cabin near a park entrance. When the climber didn’t return from his hike by evening, a search was launched. It included the National Guard and one of its Black Hawk helicopters, according to Baxter State Park Superintendent Jensen Bissell.
The man spent a night in the woods and was then found on Roaring Brook Road by a ranger headed out to join the search.
Because park rules were not followed, Baxter officials are seeking to recoup the $10,000 spent on the search. This is allowed under park rules. Baxter State Park is run by its own park authority, not the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, which oversees the state’s parks, public lands and historic sites.
Asking someone to pay $10,000 for a rescue seems a bit extreme, but fining those who fail to heed warnings — such as those who knowingly ski out of bounds or those who act irresponsibly by, say, drinking and canoeing or snowmobiling, especially at night — is reasonable.
Most search and rescue operations are handled by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and its Warden Service. State law allows the department’s commissioner to recover the costs of a rescue and rescue operation if “a person knowingly provided false information that led to a search and rescue operation.” The money would be sought from “the person who provided that false information.”
The department rarely does this. And, because there are no legal standards about when such reimbursements are required, they aren’t paid.
David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, offers a better setup, which lawmakers should consider.
He suggests that a system be created whereby people who act irresponsibly, leading to their need to be rescued, would be fined. A three-member board, made up of the head of the Maine Warden Service, a retired judge or attorney and a representative of recreational interests, would be established to determine whether someone was negligent. If they determined negligence — and not just bad luck — was a factor, the panel would then assess a fine. State law would need to be rewritten to require that the fines be paid, with set penalties for not doing so.
“This would send a message to people who are grossly negligent,” Trahan said.
With fine money going back into a search and rescue fund, it also would help replenish this fund. DIF&W gets most of its money from hunters and fishermen, but it rescues anyone who gets lost or hurt in the woods.
Accidents happen in the woods, just as they do on the road. But, when someone is irresponsible, or doesn’t follow rules or laws, assessing a penalty when they have to be extracted from harm makes sense.