In the Aspen backcountry, rescues pricey but at no cost to taxpayers
ASPEN – Last week’s recovery of a climber who fell to his death on Capitol Peak and the rescues of two individuals who were injured in separate instances in the wilderness won’t cost taxpayers a dime. The expenses are borne by local agencies, which absorb thousands of dollars in costs annually.
The recovery effort by Mountain Rescue Aspen and the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office to retrieve the body of James Flowers on July 11 is estimated to have cost between $5,000 and $7,000.
But because Flowers had purchased a Colorado hiker’s certificate, the sheriff’s office will be completely reimbursed for the effort, which required a helicopter that cost upward of $1,000 an hour.
“It does him no good, but it helps the sheriff’s office and the volunteers,” said Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis.
The Colorado hiker’s certificate was created more than a decade ago, and the nominal certificate fee is deposited into what is basically a search-and-rescue fund. It’s administered by the Division of Local Affairs, Braudis said.
He helped get legislation passed through a bill sponsored by state Rep. Lewis Entz (R-San Luis Valley) nearly two decades ago. The fund was established by assessing a 25-cent surcharge on Colorado hunting and fishing licenses.
Any time a license-carrier had to be rescued, a county could recover its costs. In 1994, an amendment was passed creating the hiker’s certificate.
Colorado’s sheriffs and search and rescue community developed the method to help financially strapped counties deal with large-scale searches on which they spent considerable money.
It’s estimated that search and rescues cost the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office an average of about $10,000 a year.
The sheriff’s office – the lead agency responsible for search and rescues – opts to pay all costs associated with finding lost adventure seekers. At the end of the year, Braudis looks for reimbursement from the state.
“Sometimes we get 50 percent of what we ask for,” he said, adding the money goes to pay for equipment and training for rescue volunteers. “But the funding seems to be fine, and it’s fairly budget neutral.”
Before the legislation was enacted, Braudis said the sheriff’s office didn’t have authority to charge for rescues.
Some states are considering charging people for rescues. In Denali, Alaska, the National Park Service has set a trend by charging hikers expensive fees, which acts like an insurance policy. That’s also the case in Europe, where rescuers won’t come to a person’s aid unless they’ve paid an expensive user fee.
Braudis doesn’t agree with that policy, and said he considers search and rescues a taxpayer service.
“We never make a decision based on money,” he said. “The message is never hesitate to call 911 because a friend is overdue or hurt because you’re concerned about paying for it.”