Unlucky risk-takers in U.S. parks to be billed for their rescue

September 02, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- If you get caught in a blizzard during a mountain climb in a national park, getting plucked to safety will no longer be free of charge, the National Park Service has announced.

In an effort to trim costs, the Park Service says it will require mountain climbers and eventually other sportsmen to pay for their own rescues in the event that their adventures turn into ordeals requiring search-and-rescue operations.

"With scarce dollars to manage our national parks, we should not be trying to foot all the bills for rescuing people who knowingly engage in very high-risk adventures," says Bonnie Cohen, assistant Interior secretary for policy, management and budget.

In 1992, the Park Service spent $3 million to rescue adventurers from a wide variety of perils, dispatching everything from dogsleds to specially equipped helicopters to pluck them from summits, streambeds and forests. Park Service spokesman Duncan Morrow says that the bulk of the service's rescues have been in Denali National Park in Alaska, home of Mount McKinley, and at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington.

Denali and Rainier will be the sites of the Park Service's pilot program, which will hold mountain climbers liable for the cost of their rescues starting sometime next spring, says Mr. Morrow. Over the next several months, Mr. Morrow says, the Park Service, search-and-rescue professionals and representatives of the climbing community will work with several underwriting companies to negotiate the cost and terms of insurance policies that would cover a climber's search-and-rescue expenses.

Ultimately, the Park Service is expected to extend its new policy to other activities that frequently result in search-and-rescue operations, including white-water rafting, kayaking, rock climbing and hang gliding. Eventually, Mr. Morrow says, adventurers throughout the national park system would be held liable for the cost of their rescues.

At the same time, Interior Department officials stress that the Park Service would continue to conduct free searches for park visitors not engaged in activities deemed dangerous.

"We are talking about people who make a conscious choice to undertake a high-risk activity, not billing the parents of a toddler who wanders out of the campground," Mr. Morrow says. "We're not suggesting that if you can't foot the bill we won't seek out your child."

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