Search and Rescue Funding

Summary

Funding mechanisms for search and rescue (SAR) operations vary by state, but for those in which sportsmen-generated dollars cover the costs associated with these efforts, the end result is a loss in crucial money otherwise delegated towards conservation and wildlife management. States are encouraged to explore alternate methods of funding for SAR crews, in order to prevent their respective fish and wildlife agencies from being financially strapped after SAR operations.

Introduction

Search and rescue (SAR) crews provide life-saving services for individuals who are lost or injured in remote, often dangerous scenarios. These operations can require significant amounts of resources, equipment, and manpower which can accrue large costs for those involved. Typically, local governments at the county or state levels are responsible for the management and funding of these SAR operations, even if they are conducted on federal lands within their jurisdictions. These operations are carried out by state agencies, local sheriffs’ offices, or volunteer-based organizations. In states where the wildlife agency is responsible for SAR, sportsmen-generated dollars that are meant to be used for conservation and wildlife management are being spent on SAR operation costs, which can negatively impact the agency’s ability to deliver their conservation services. Several states, including New Hampshire, Utah, and Colorado, have implemented alternative funding mechanisms for SAR operations.

Background 

In New Hampshire, the Fish and Game Department conducts an average of 180 SAR missions each year, which are funded, in part, from fees on boating/off-roading licenses. When these funds are not sufficient, the Department is forced to tap into the Fish and Game fund which contains the funds generated through the “user pays – public benefits” American System of Conservation Funding. Additionally, individuals may be held liable for the costs associated with their rescue, which can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars. To alleviate the financial burden associated with SAR operations, New Hampshire created the “Hike Safe” card, which is a voluntary program in which individuals purchase annual cards that provide protection from certain liabilities associated with SAR. These funds directly support SAR operations and help mitigate the funds being used from the Fish and Game fund. These types of programs exist in several other states and serve to provide alternative funding avenues for SAR operations so that conservation dollars are not lost.

Points of Interest

  • In New Hampshire, hunters, anglers and boaters are the primary source of funding for SAR operations, but they only make up 11% of rescues, while hikers and campers make up 62% of all rescues.
  • Similar to New Hampshire, the Utah Search and Rescue Assistance (USARA) card is an optional program that reimburses the non-medical costs associated with the rescue of card holders. Otherwise, counties retain the ability to hold the individual liable for SAR costs.
  • Colorado’s search and rescue (SAR) operations are funded through sportsmen’s licenses sales, off-highway vehicle registrations, and through voluntary Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue (COSAR) cards. These cards only provide funds for county search and rescue operations which never charge individuals for their services.
  • Local jurisdictions containing areas of federal land can receive federal funds for search and rescue operations through programs such as the Payments in Lieu of Taxes program.
  • With the exception of the National Parks Service (NPS), federal agencies do not track SAR costs on federal lands. NPS is the primary federal agency that responds to SAR incidents and only tracks major incidents (>$500) of which it funds and does not collect data on minor (<$500) incidents which are funded by local park units.
  • Texas Search and Rescue (TEXSAR) is a professionally trained volunteer organization that operates within Texas and is funded completely through sponsors and private donations. Other states follow this model and rely solely on volunteer organizations for SAR.
  • California, Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire, Oregon, and Utah all have statutes in place that allow them to charge individual(s) for SAR costs, however in practice this only happens if the individual(s) were acting negligent and is not often utilized due to public-relations issues. 

Language

  • California: “[W]henever a county or city and county is billed for a search or rescue of one of its residents who is 16 years of age or older by another county or city and county, the county or city and county receiving the bill may in turn seek reimbursement for the actual costs incurred, including, but not limited to, the cost of operating vehicles or aircraft, the salaries of employees, and the cost of providing emergency medical services, from that resident if the need for the search or rescue necessitated the use of extraordinary methods and was caused by any of the following…”
  • New Hampshire: “The executive director shall adopt rules under RSA 541-A for the issuance to purchasers on the department's Internet site, and subsequent annual renewals, of a hike safe card prior to a person's need for a search and rescue response. The executive director shall establish the fee for an individual hike safe card and a family hike safe card in rules adopted pursuant to RSA 541-A.”

Moving Forward

When SAR operations rely on sportsmen-generated dollars, it negatively impacts the ability of state fish and wildlife agencies to deliver their conservation services. Legislators are encouraged to investigate alternative funding mechanisms for SAR operations as has been done in New Hampshire, Utah, and Colorado. Additionally, elected officials who have federal lands within their jurisdiction are encouraged to work with their relevant departments and agencies to understand what federal programs to receive funds for SAR they may be eligible for.

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