A study conducted by Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) found that 92% of Coloradans recreate outdoors and 62% recreate in parks, open spaces and on trails at least once a week. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that Colorado’s backcountry search and rescue (BSAR) providers are busy. In fact, BSAR teams in Colorado are busier than in any other state, responding to more than 3,600 incidents each year, according to Colorado Senate Bill 21-245, “Strengthening Search and Rescue in the ‘Colorado Backcountry’.
The bill directed the CPW to study BSAR and interagency coordination; workers’ compensation and other benefits for injuries that may occur; pension benefits for BSAR members; the availability of equipment and the funding required to purchase and maintain the equipment; physical and psychological impacts on BSAR members and availability of support resources; government immunity; training needs; and the need to educate the public about outdoor safety.
The study included a survey of 41 of 62 county sheriffs (primarily counties with BSAR incidents) and 657 of approximately 2,800 volunteers from 49 of Colorado’s 50 BSAR teams.
One of the main recommendations of the study included a dedicated helicopter. Currently, these services are provided by medical or military helicopters, when available. The study also cited the need to improve communications between BSAR teams and sheriffs’ offices through the purchase and maintenance of radio equipment; to close gaps in workers’ compensation coverage for BSAR members by consolidating under one provider; and to provide a mileage reimbursement or stipend to volunteers who, on average, spend nearly $1,600 of their own money each year on equipment, training and fuel.
In addition, the study recommended developing a certification and training program and improving outdoor public safety education.
The study also recommended that the state SAR fund be transferred to CPW where it can be managed under the department’s corporate status and not be affected by the limitations of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR ). The SAR fund is primarily funded by the CPW with fees attached to hunting and fishing licenses and off-road vehicle, boat and snowmobile registrations. Additionally, a CORSAR (Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue) card is administered by the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA). SAR funds collected by CPW are then transferred to DOLA for dissemination and, as a state tax-funded agency, are subject to TABOR limits. Letting CPW retain and administer fee-based (i.e. non-tax) funds would allow it to operate outside of these limits. The SAR fund donates approximately $500,000 each year to SAR teams, usually to replace worn or damaged equipment, or to help teams purchase “big-ticket” items.
Colorado’s BSAR network is primarily a local issue, with each county’s sheriff responsible for coordinating BSAR services. As such, there is a wide disparity in the level of funding, equipment, and manpower from county to county. BSAR services in the state are provided by 2,800 volunteers in 50 nonprofit teams, and since no team charges for SAR services, they rely primarily on grants or donations, with direct but variable financial support from sheriff’s offices. Some teams operate on as little as $10,000 a year while others need close to $200,000. Much of this comes from fundraising (donations, special events, etc.), which takes a lot of volunteer time, in addition to the many volunteer hours on rescue missions. The SAR fund is not intended to be the main source of funding for a BSAR team, nor can it be, but it does help fill in the gaps.
Interestingly, the people who use BSAR resources the most are not the same people who contribute the most to the SAR fund. According to the study, the sale of combined hunting and fishing licenses represents 71% of the fund. The sale of voluntary CORSAR cards represents 16% of the fund and registrations of off-road vehicles, boats and snowmobiles represent 13%. But when it comes to BSAR users, the activities break down as follows: hikers and climbers (55%), cyclists and skiers (14%), and “other” users, such as horse riders, cave pilots and kiteboarders (12%). Hunters and anglers, who pay the bulk of the fund when purchasing a license, account for only 6% of incidents, while snowmobilers, off-road vehicle users and boaters, who contribute to the fund through registration fees, represent only 13% of incidents. BSAR incidents.
This disparity is a thorn in the side of many in the sports community, who complain that recreational users are “free” because they use BSAR services more, but contribute much, much less.
It is a valid complaint.
It’s time for recreational users in Colorado to stop freeloading and pay their fair share.
Some of this disparity will be resolved when the annual Keep Colorado Wild Pass, which will be attached to vehicle registration, begins in January 2023. But even with the implementation of this program, SAR funding is based on a formula, which according to the study, will not send money to the SAR fund until mid-2024 at the earliest. In the meantime, BSAR missions will continue.
If you’re a hiker, cyclist, equestrian or trail runner, do your part and buy a CORSAR card.
You can read the full report here.
Be wise. Do good things. Don’t be a freeloader.