Dangerous, costly rescues

Reckless trekkers: Foolhardy adventurers don't pay the price, and parks should make them do so.

March 16, 2000

THE National Park Service spends more than $3 million a year rescuing endangered mountain climbers and hikers, averaging 5,000 missions annually. It's a mounting cost, financial and human, that is often avoidable.

The issue is not just money. It's about preventing needless deaths and injuries to the aggressively stupid -- and to the rescuers who bravely come to their aid.

Unpredictability of weather can play a role. So can truly unforeseen circumstances. But the vast majority of rescue cases involves ignorance, inadequate equipment and training, and a willful bliss to seek adventure. Hikers and climbers are warned by park rangers of adverse conditions; a handful always choose to ignore the advice.

There is little reason not to charge individuals for a costly rescue and recovery operation. Some may not have the means to pay. But hospitals and ambulance companies bill for life-saving services, even though they perform first and then submit the bill.

One alternative, decidedly less enforceable, is to require rescue insurance or a posted bond for adventurers tackling more perilous peaks and territory in the parks. (European countries do.) Issues of personal freedom and the wilderness experience are frequently raised as arguments against charging for rescue and recovery missions. But parks already restrict certain uses of the public domain and charge for services: permits and fees to use certain areas, for example, or limits on bushwhacking.

The park fee to reach the higher slopes of Mount Rainier is $15, about 10 times lower than it should be; rescue missions at that national park cost taxpayers more than $230,000 last year.

New Hampshire is the latest jurisdiction to charge rescued parties -- an approach that makes sense. Those who choose to put themselves at deliberate risk should

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