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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Search and Rescue, on Whose Dime?

Air Date: Week of

Laura Lynch reports from Vancouver, British Columbia, on efforts to find ways to pay for the rising cost of search and rescue for people in trouble in the outdoors. More and more skiers, snowboarders and hikers are venturing into restricted areas, getting into trouble and having to be rescued. Ski areas and outdoor equipment retailers are chafing at a proposed special tax to pay for the service.


CURWOOD: The recent ski season in the Pacific Northwest and western Canada has been nothing short of spectacular. Record amounts of snow have lured more and more people to the region's mountains to ski, snowboard, and hike. But as more people head for the great outdoors, more of them are getting into trouble after trekking into dangerous areas where they can't find their way out. Now the government of British Columbia is moving to make those who have to be rescued pay for the service. But as Laura Lynch reports from Vancouver, that idea has its opponents.

ROYSTON: If the person was buried, then in all likelihood there's a very minuscule chance of anybody surviving.

LYNCH: At Gross Mountain, British Columbia, just minutes from downtown Vancouver, an exhausted Ron Royston talks to reporters about the search for a man who's been buried in an avalanche. Four others were successfully rescued after they all ignored posted warnings to stay off a snow-covered hiking trail. For years British Columbia has boasted of its mountain and ocean playgrounds, labeling itself "Supernatural" in advertising. But the same things that make it so attractive for the adventurous are also creating a super headache for search and rescue operations. The number of people being plucked from mountainsides or pulled out from remote areas has been climbing. Tim Jones is the leader of the North Shore Search and Rescue Team.

JONES: We had 2 calls last week, back to back, one on Sunday night and one on Tuesday night, and it pretty well tapped out the resources of 3 rescue teams. Complicated searches, medical rescues actually, in high avalanche hazard and winter storm conditions.

LYNCH: Those few days are a poignant refection of what's happening across the province. Statistics show the numbers of search and rescue operations increasing nearly every year for the last decade. Government officials say there are 3 reasons for that. BC's population is growing, tourism is booming, and more and more people are participating in risky outdoor sports: hiking, backcountry skiing, and snowboarding. It all adds up to more work and more costs for the local volunteer search and rescue teams, and Tim Jones says increased demand for their services also means more time spent on fundraising, since search and rescue teams in BC have to raise nearly all of their own money. He wants someone else to pay.

JONES: Somebody's got to make a move here to fund search and rescue. Like, we should not be out groveling for money.

LYNCH: Now, the government is floating a new package of proposals to deal with the problem. One measure calls for fining or seizing the lift tickets of skiers and snowboarders who venture out of bounds. But the most contentious move is a plan to slap a half percent tax on outdoor equipment, and a 25 cent charge on ski tickets to help pay for search and rescue squads.

(Shouts and sounds of skiing)

LYNCH: Yet even as the skiers and snowboarders flock to the mountains, and as resorts report some of their best earnings ever, owners are rejecting the government's ideas. Stuart McLaughlin is the president and general manager of Gross Mountain. He says that only a small percentage of rescues are carried out for skiers and snowboarders.

MC LAUGHLIN: To single out what are for the most part responsible people, who are utilizing ski areas and staying within the boundaries and playing by the rules, I don't think the rule abiders are going to want to be paying for the rule breakers.

LYNCH: It's hikers who top the rescue list. Year after year they are the single biggest group needing help. Still, stores which sell hiking equipment don't like the proposal, either. Rick Conn works for a leading outdoor equipment chain, Mountain Equipment Co-op.

CONN: The connection between a member coming into our store and buying something and then the activities of search and rescue, for most of the things we sell there isn't a very close connection there. And we sell a lot of products to a lot of our members that will never be used in a search and rescue-type situation.

LYNCH: Instead, the industry has other ideas. It wants BC to start encouraging people to buy insurance when they venture into the outdoors. Rick Conn says it's a variation on a plan that works in Europe.

CONN: If you're engaged in an outdoor activity that is likely to require search and rescue, that you take a precaution by buying an insurance policy that effectively guarantees that you'll be supported with a search and rescue activity should you need it.

LYNCH: Yet, even the proposal's backers admit there could be problems persuading people to pay for insurance voluntarily, especially since rescues are free right now. And the idea of making people who need to be rescued pay out of their own pockets has been rejected by nearly everyone, including the government. Most say that would simply discourage people in danger from seeking help, perhaps resulting in more deaths. Meanwhile, almost everyone agrees on one thing which should be done: educate people not to take risks in the wild. Stuart McLaughlin says staff at Gross Mountain run their own workshops every season. He believes government has a role to play, too.

MC LAUGHLIN: The Ministry of Education ought to use its powers to get into the school system and start to teach young people at a very young age about how to enjoy the outdoors safely.

LYNCH: The BC government is promising new measures within months. Whatever action it takes, it can't come too soon. With spring coming, hikers will start heading out, and inevitably search and rescue teams will have to follow. For Living on Earth, I'm Laura Lynch in Vancouver.



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