Starting next week, Utah will join two other states in offering a get-rescued-free card program for backcountry enthusiasts and their families.
The Utah Legislature established the program to help fund local search and rescue groups throughout the state. It exempts card holders from being billed for the costs of their rescues. The state Office of Outdoor Recreation is managing the program and will launch it sometime next week.
The program will offer annual passes for individuals for $25 and families for $35. A 10 percent discount will be available for hunting and fishing license holders and 20 percent discount will be offered to those purchasing a five-year pass. Once the website RescueUtah.gov is launched, passes will be available. Anticipated revenue for the first year is $10,000.
All 29 Utah counties have the option to charge people who are rescued and receive reimbursement costs through the state’s Search and Rescue Financial Assistance Program, but the program is intended to offset what isn’t recouped.
“These people put in so much time and so much effort and skill and we just want to support them around the state,” said Tara McKee, project coordinator with the Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation. “We want to have that backstop for the sheriffs who are in counties with a tiny tax base and can’t really afford to do all the rescuing.
“In some of the counties that spend $200,000 a year on average on search-and-rescue costs, they only get a certain amount of that back,” McKee said.
Most of the money from the passes will go into the Search and Rescue Assistance Fund to be distributed statewide. A small portion of the funds will be used to cover transaction and vendor fees, McKee said.
“I think we’ve learned a lot from Colorado and New Hampshire and we’re trying to make improvements over both of them and we hope other states will do the same to ours,” she said.
Summit County Sheriff’s Department Search and Rescue liaison Alan Siddoway said the costs associated with search and rescue missions are rapidly increasing due to fuel and vehicle maintenance prices. For example, a helicopter rescue can start at $1,000 an hour.
“Searches are funded nearly 100 percent, but training and new equipment purchases are prorated,” Siddoway said. “This will assist us in recouping some of the costs so that it’s not entirely borne by Summit County.”
With more money available in the state search-and-rescue fund, reimbursement will be less competitive, Siddoway said. The state reimbursed Summit County Search and Rescue $21,000 in 2014.
A significant number of the people who are rescued in the county are not residents, Siddoway said, adding that the program will remove some of the burden out-of-state recreaters place on local jurisdictions, such as Summit County.
“It will assist those folks in some of the more rural counties with the vast areas of federal lands,” Siddoway said. “Some of those organizations rely on charity events and demolition derbies in order to raise what they do for their budget and I think this will be very good for those counties in those situations.”