State considering way to bolster funding for Search and Rescue crews

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Hikers, bikers and other outdoor enthusiasts in Utah may soon be able to buy a card that will help pay for search and rescue operations.The cards, proposed in a bill at the Legislature, would be voluntary and in no way guarantee rescues for those who buy them. They would add funds to an existing pot of money that Utah sheriff’s offices use to reimburse search and rescue expenses.Senate Bill 60, sponsored by Monroe Republican Sen. Ralph Okerlund, says the card could be bought by backpackers, hikers, mountain bikers, cross-country skiers and anyone else who uses Utah’s backcountry.”We hope that people from out of state that come here to recreate and those who live here will see the value of helping our search and rescue teams,” Okerlund said.A one-year card would be $3 and a five-year card would be $12. Most of the money would go to the state’s search and rescue “financial assistance program,” according to the bill.The program – which currently gets most of its funding from hunting and fishing licenses and registration fees on snowmobiles and ATVs – pays out about $250,000 a year to sheriff’s departments around the state, according to Cache County Sheriff Lynn Nelson, chairman of the Utah Search and Rescue Advisory Board.He said he generally supports Okerlund’s bill though his board has yet to give it a thorough review.No one’s going to be checking to see whether someone who needs rescuing has purchased a card.”We’re going to come get you whether you have one or not,” Nelson said.Most search and rescue operations in Utah rely heavily on volunteers. The fund doesn’t pay them but does help foot the bill for training, equipment, climbing gear, vehicles, gas and other rescue expenses.Okerlund said that, if his bill passes, he’s hoping the cards will eventually supply an additional $100,000 or so each year to the program. The card program would require about $30,000 a year to run, according to the state’s Office of Legislative Fiscal Impact.Colorado has sold a similar card since 2002. It raised about $439,000 for search and rescues during the last fiscal year.There were about 520 search and rescue missions in Utah in 2008, most of them in Grand, Utah and Washington counties. Over the last 10 years, hikers have needed rescuing more often than any other group in Utah.In Cache County, Cache County Sheriff’s Lt. Matt Bilodeau said he’s happy with the way the state currently reimburses the local search and rescue crew for money spent on searches. He said as far as he can tell, the current system is working well.

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