This is the side of outdoor recreation that many people might not think about – the equipment, skill and strength required to rescue people who are in the backcountry of national and state parks.
Teams like Drew Hildner’s love hiking trails across the country. “We always joke about giving each other raises or bonuses,” he laughed. He’s with Rocky Mountain Rescue in Boulder, Colorado.
Almost all teams across the country, like Rocky Mountain Rescue, are staffed by volunteers.
“You can be at work, you can be shopping for groceries, then suddenly the pager goes off, and 30 minutes later you can be in pretty stressful, serious situations,” he said.
The number of these stressful, serious situations has steadily increased in recent years.
“Something that we’ve been very aware of and had to deal with is higher burnout rates,” he said.
Hildner said his team will conduct about two rescues every three days. Any rescue, even if it’s just a sprained ankle, requires at least 15 people to respond.
The National Park Service reported nearly 300 million visits last year, a 25% increase from 2020. The pandemic has also spurred migration. The townspeople sought a quieter life in the mountains and moved away from the city. Drew says all of this takes a toll on crews both physically and financially.
“Even though we’re all volunteers, even though we don’t charge for rescues, there are still costs involved,” said Anna DeBattiste of the Colorado Search and Rescue Association.
She says the surge in rescues is piling up, with many volunteers spending their own money on expensive outdoor gear. There’s also a shortage of volunteers as many older rescuers have retired during the pandemic.
“We have to recruit younger people,” she said, “and it’s very difficult for these younger people who have the stamina and strong backs that we need to pay the cost of living here.”
Though the not-for-profit model has been put to the test, Drew and Anna say it still doesn’t entirely make financial sense to fund search and rescue 100% with taxpayers’ money, but they say something needs to be given.
In her state of Colorado, lawmakers passed legislation that allocates more money and resources to teams, which she hopes will also help with recruitment. The law makes fundraising easier and allocates $1 million to teams across the state.
Each of the states where outdoor recreation is increasing such as Washington, Oregon, New Hampshire and the Dakotas are finding their own way of dealing with this problem. Anna and Drew hope Colorado’s legislation will become a model for other states.
“If we can offset some of the cost and hours for the volunteers, I think that’s probably where we’re headed and seems like the best middle ground and value for money,” he said.