As more Americans challenge themselves by scaling soaring peaks and hiking through U.S. parks, an increasing number wind up having to be rescued, which can be a costly process for the federal government. Now federal officials are considering proposals to make some adventurers pay for their own rescues.
The proposals are being developed by the National Park Service at a time when federal and state officials alike are dealing with dramatic and expensive rescues.
Earlier this month, an extensive air-and-ground search was required to find 115 high school students and other hikers stranded in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park by the "storm of the century" that pummeled the eastern half of the country. And last month in Aspen, Colo., a four-day effort was required to rescue five cross-country skiers who became separated in blinding snow.
The cost of a single rescue operation can exceed $100,000. The federal government spent about $3 million on rescues in national parks in 1991, about half of it coming from the National Park Service and the rest related to the use of military helicopters. No total figures were available for the costs of rescues to the states or to other federal agencies that operate recreational areas.
The plans the park service officials began drawing up last month could require people involved in risky outdoor activities such as mountain climbing and hang gliding to post bonds or take out insurance to cover potential rescue expenses. Debate within the park service is just beginning, and no timetable has been established for adopting an overall policy.
But officials say they hope to try out proposals for making some visitors pay rescue costs at a few parks next year. If the proposals prove successful, they will be expanded.
The parks most likely to be affected early include Denali National Park and Reserve in Alaska and Mount Rainer National Park in Washington State, both popular areas for mountain climbing.
Complications and points of dispute over plans to repay government rescue costs are already emerging. Officials have yet to define all of the activities deemed risky enough to require participants to post bonds. Furthermore, it is not clear how far the government is prepared to go to collect.
From 1987 to 1991, the number of search-and-rescue operations undertaken in the nation's parks rose 78 percent to more than 5,000, according to federal statistics. Part of that trend is a result of the increased use of parks, but it is also being fueled by a growing appetite for riskier sports.