IN 1999, the New Hampshire Legislature passed a law allowing the state to charge lost hikers in the state's mountains for the cost of their rescue. But the law makes hikers or climbers liable only when they are found to have acted "recklessly." With the number - and costs - of rescues continuing to rise, legislators should authorize cost recovery if hikers simply act "negligently."
This winter has been especially rough in the White Mountains. On Jan. 21, a climber died in an avalanche, and on Feb. 11 a hiker succumbed to hypothermia. Just since the first of the year, 11 rescue missions have gone to the aid of lost, missing or injured persons. In 2007, the state spent more than $257,000 on rescue operations.
The "reckless" bar is so high that the beneficiaries of rescues rarely pay anything. When the law was first implemented in 2000, a state official said it was aimed at those who are intoxicated on the trail or shod only in sneakers on Mount Washington in the winter. Since 2004, calls for rescues have steadily climbed, with a total of more than 700 people needing assistance. The increase is fueled in part, officials say, by the false confidence that hikers get from cellphones and GPS devices.
Unfortunately, cellphone batteries run down quickly in remote areas with sketchy service, and even a functioning cellphone is of no use in calling for aid in weather conditions that defy skilled rescue teams. Weather is so unpredictable in the White Mountains that rescue officials would be justified in finding negligence on the part of distressed hikers who are not equipped with all the basics of winter-camping survival.
Even careful preparation could fall short. In January 2004, a fit, experienced, and well-equipped 37-year-old park ranger from Mount Monadnock State Park died of hypothermia when he was hit by extreme conditions while backpacking near South Twin Mountain in the Whites.
The state does not want to prohibit winter use of the mountains. "There are people who thrive on hiking in the White Mountains in winter," said Representative Carla Skinder of Cornish, sponsor of a bill to make "negligence" and not "recklessness" the standard for liability. But those who pursue these activities need to be held responsible when their failure to stay on the trail or anticipate weather changes puts a strain on the budget of the state's Fish and Game Department - and, worse, jeopardizes the lives of would-be rescuers. Skinder said she does not think a tougher law with a greater likelihood of liability would cause lost hikers not to seek help when they need it.
Lawmakers should pass a signficantly stronger bill. But they also should make sure the department has the resources it needs to warn hiking enthusiasts that carelessness comes with a cost.