Backcountry Search & Rescue Bill Moves through Colorado Legislature

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The Colorado Department of Natural Resources and the Colorado Search and Rescue Association praised the Colorado Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee’s unanimous support for the “Strengthen Backcountry Search and Rescue in Colorado Act” today.

This needed legislation supports efforts to redesign the state-wide Backcountry Search and Rescue program through a study and stakeholder process through Colorado Parks and Wildlife, as well as a pilot program to provide mental health services to Backcountry Search and Rescue (BSAR) professionals. 

“Colorado’s Backcountry Search and Rescue Teams are near and dear to my heart as someone who has worked alongside the brave men and women who provide such a vital service to the State of Colorado,” said Dan Gibbs, Executive Director, Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “This past year Colorado saw exponential growth from Coloradans and visitors recreating in our outdoors and backcountry during the COVID-19 pandemic. The demand for search and rescue teams is far outpacing our human and technical resources, and we owe it to our volunteer search and rescue teams to properly review and assess how this service is organized and supported. This important legislation will study how the increase of rescues are impacting the financial, logistical and emotional health of volunteer rescuers and our local sheriffs and governments.”

“Colorado’s Backcountry Search and Rescue teams are literally a safety net for the Colorado way of life and our outdoor recreation economy. Our incredibly dedicated teams respond whenever called to Colorado’s highest peaks, steepest canyons, raging rivers, suburban neighborhoods, and everywhere in between. Their goal is always to safely find and transport those lost, stranded, or injured in our beautiful outdoors. Please know that we will continue to respond day or night to assist anyone in need.  The system was strained before the pandemic, and thankfully these teams have risen to all the challenges these times have placed before us.  However, the system is long overdue to be re-engineered, and the volunteers need real tangible support to carry-on.” said Jeff Sparhawk, President, Colorado Search and Rescue Association. 

“Backcountry Search and Rescue is often dangerous, and volunteers receive no compensation, healthcare, or mental health services. However, our teams are human and clearly can suffer impacts from witnessing extreme trauma or death and being on-call 24/7. We appreciate the Colorado legislature's consideration of this Bill and their guidance to see how we all can better support our backcountry search and rescue responders so that we can better provide these vital services for future residents and visitors to Colorado’s outdoors.”

No Colorado BSAR team charges for its services, so most depend on grants and donations to operate. BSAR professionals also cover their own costs, which amount to thousands of dollars annually.  Roughly 2,800 unpaid BSAR professionals, serving on almost 50 non-profit BSAR teams, give an estimated  500,000 person-hours annually to support BSAR, our communities, and all of Colorado.  

BSAR is currently a local issue, with sheriffs statutorily required to coordinate BSAR within their counties.  The only state funding support for this important work is $500,000 in annual grants from the Department of Local Affairs Search and Rescue Fund. This fund originated in 1987 and that was the last time Colorado stepped in to support this vital service. The majority of these funds are raised from a 25 cent surcharge on hunting and fishing licenses and motorboat, snowmobile, and OHV registrations.  A small amount of additional funding is provided by the sale of Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue (COSAR) cards. 

This legislation compliments SB21-249, the Keep Colorado Wild Pass, which could provide more sustainable funding for search and rescue programs over the long term after the study provisions in SB21-245 are met. 

To support your local and regional Backcountry Search and Rescue Teams, consider purchasing a Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue card, $3 for a one-year card and $12 for five-year card. More info can be found here: https://dola.colorado.gov/sar/cardPurchase.jsf
 

 

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