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NH officials may start levying criminal charges after risky hiker rescues

“It’s a little wake-up call,” one New Hampshire Fish and Game Department official said.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Franconia, NH -- 4/28/21 -- A hiker made his way along the rocks at Artist's Bluff in New Hampshire's White Mountains.

They walked into Franconia Notch State Park the afternoon of June 11 without equipment, proper footwear, or even an idea of where they were going. 

Lowell resident Jason Feierstin, 22, and Windsor, New Hampshire resident Dylan Stahley, 25, veered off-trail and tried to rock-climb, a move that left one hiker stranded atop the cliffs and the other laying under a ledge, trying not to fall.

The resulting hourslong rescue led to criminal charges for both men, a turning point in New Hampshire officials’ efforts to curb irresponsible hiking behaviors that put rescue teams at risk. 

“The safety of rescuers is paramount in the execution of search and rescue missions,” Lt. James Kneeland of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department said in a September news release. “When people put themselves into hazardous situations needlessly or by being ill prepared, and put rescuers in harm’s way, they need to be held accountable.”

Hiking in New England

Feierstin and Stahley were unfamiliar with the area and didn’t have the right footwear for such a steep and dangerous spot, “much less ropes, harnesses, or climbing gear,” according to the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. 

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The hiker stuck on the side of the mountain called 911 for help, telling dispatchers the pair was “exploring.” 

Col. Kevin Jordan, the fish and game department’s chief of law enforcement, decided to charge both men criminally for “placing another in danger of serious bodily injury” — a first in his 30 years with the agency, according to The Boston Globe. Jordan did not immediately return Boston.com’s request for comment.

“The absolute goal of charging these guys — one of the primary goals — was to let people know that if you are this careless, if you show this blatant disregard for human safety, there’s a consequence for that and it’s a significant one,” Jordan told the Globe. “It’s a little wake-up call.”

On Aug. 9, Feierstin and Stahley pleaded guilty to reckless conduct in exchange for lesser charges. They were fined $200 and a $48 penalty assessment. 

Their case has reignited debate over the risks and costs of rescue missions. New Hampshire law allows the Fish and Game Department to bill people who are negligent for the cost of their rescue. The department also sells Hike Safe Cards for $25 (or $35 per family), and cardholders are not liable for rescue costs except under certain criteria. 

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Rescue costs can add up: From fiscal years 2009 to 2019, NH Fish and Game completed 1,890 search and rescue missions at a total cost of $3.1 million. Those numbers come out to about 190 missions each year, with an average cost of $1,635 per rescue. 

About a dozen hikers are billed for the cost of their rescue in an average year, Jordan told the Globe. In the last fiscal year, NH Fish and Game spent more than $240,000 on hiking and drowning rescues, the newspaper reported. 

There has been a massive surge in national forest visits during the pandemic, according to research from the University of New Hampshire, and with the onset of fall, Kneeland told the Globe he expects to see the number of rescues continue to rise. 

In its September news release, the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department encouraged visitors to enjoy the White Mountains, with one important reminder: “You are responsible for yourself, so be prepared.”

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