We have previously discussed the trend of citizens being charged for rescue in federal and state parkland. I have always been a critic of the practice because rescues are part of the costs of maintaining these parks. Many volunteers participate in such rescues and largely oppose the charging of the victims, even when they made negligent decisions. The latest is Edward Bacon, 59 year old man from Michigan, who is appealing the imposition of a $9,300 bill for his rescue at the White Mountain National Forest.
Let’s be clear at the outset. As many of you know, I am a lifelong backpacker and outdoor enthusiast. In my view, Edward Bacon is clearly negligent. I have hiked the White Mountain National Forest, which is gorgeous but has some very challenging areas. The fact that Bacon was hiking alone (cited by the government) is not in my view negligent. I am a solo hiker and backpacker. I love the solitude and used to backpack for a couple weeks at a time alone. However, the other aspects of the hike were questionable in 2012. He went on a five day backpacking trip to a rugged area. He took this rugged course despite various physical problems, including four hip surgeries since 2005 and an artificial hip that had dislocated twice in the previous year. He also reportedly needed two canes. Then there was the weather. The forecast was for high winds and heavy rain but Bacon pushed ahead regardless along an exposed ridgeline.
Again, I am sympathetic with the desire to hike alone and I like remote areas. I have long dreaded the day when I will not be able to do challenging hikes and I admit that I push myself a bit much. However, I would not have taken this hike in these conditions. The worse part of such poor decision making is that it can put rescuers in danger. In this case, the rescuers from Fish and Game, the Pemigewasset Valley Search and Rescue Team, the Mountain Rescue Service and Appalachian Mountain Club responded. They had to carry Bacon for four miles of rough terrain with 70 mile per hour winds in the rain.
That was dumb. Really dumb. Indeed, I initially was so ticked by the report that I thought about an exception in such cases for clearly negligent actions. However, I still agree with the rescuer organizations that oppose such charges. People in peril do not want to be injured and usually over-estimate their capabilities. It happens. Yet, we all enjoy these natural areas and understand that it comes with risks. We do not want people to be reluctant to call for help in fear of fines.
I make an exception for those who break the law and get themselves into trouble. Many years ago, I testified with Bobby Unser in a hearing that touched on a fine that he was forced to pay after taking snowmobiles in a wilderness area in violation of regulations. Despite the rangers risking their lives in a massive snowstorm, Unser objected to be given a small ticket and fine. I was not just unsympathetic. I was incredulous. He deserved to be fined and his only response should have been profuse apology and thanks.
In this case, a judge in District Court in Concord, N.H. found that negligence warranted the imposition of costs against Bacon. Yet, most such accidents involve some level of negligence. You can take a risky leap or an ill-conceived technical climb.
Bacon had hiked the area before. He had proper equipment. That day’s hike was only 5 or so miles. Yes, he had a bad hip and should have been hiking with a partner, but I do not view a solo hike to be manifestly outrageous.
What really disturbs me is that the state is considering the sale of a $25 safe hiker card that is really an insurance plan. Those who have the card will not be charged for rescues, even when negligent. That card is likely to make calls for help less likely by many who will assume that they will be charged. Parks will end up like insurance where people do not report accidents because they do not want to see their rates increased. We pay for these parks to enjoy them. Fees are going up despite that fact that these parks are hands down the most successful government programs on the books. While the number of people enjoying these parks would suggest that we should be expanding parks and resources, the opposite is true. Fee are raising and services are falling.
New Hampshire is heading in the wrong direction. There should be no charge for rescues. Any costs can be folded into the costs of maintaining these parks and possibly passed on in the form of entrance fees. However, in my view, this is a basic role of state governments to maintain parks and the various costs associated with them. We should be expanded our parks and not adding charges given the number of increasing visitors. To go to Yellowstone these days is to face literal traffic jams due to the limited space. We seem to be moving toward a system where basic services are now being treated as luxuries or surcharges by the government.
Bacon is not an easy case to be sure but, in my view, he should not be charged.
What do you think?