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Sending Out An SOS

New funding for Colorado’s unsung heroes has been a long time coming. But is it enough in the country’s busiest search-and-rescue state?

Colorado is nationally renowned not only for its breathtaking landscapes, but also for its selfless rescuers. Centennial State is one of the busiest in the nation when it comes to search and rescue (SAR) efforts with over 50 SAR teams and a dedicated force of 2,800 volunteers that make the backbone of a vital lineline for those who get in trouble or suffer injury off the grid.

Recent years have found teams struggling to keep up with the massive uptick of rescues amid a booming outdoor recreation economy, however. A report from the Colorado Search and Rescue Association (CSAR) shows that SAR teams respond to 3,000 annual incidents across the state, ranging from quickly resolved rescues of ill-equipped day hikers to risky missions that may take weeks of coordination, technical skills, and human power.

The dedicated commitment of SAR volunteers is not just measured in time; it’s also a tremendous financial burden. According to a 2021 study published by Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), these rescue missions depend heavily on the dedication of local volunteers, each of whom annually shells out an average of $1,500 of their own money on equipment, gas, and related expenses to get the job done. The report further revealed that the combined rescue costs and volunteer time amounts to a hefty $21 million in total every year. That’s a big burden on the people who jump in to help find a lost hiker or backcountry skier. So who can lend a helping hand to the rescuers?

Bridging the Financial Gap

The CPW report, which shed light on issues of burnout, underfunding, and legal exposure, prompted lawmakers to take action to ensure a more sustainable future for Colorado’s search and rescue teams through funding and additional support.

In 2023, Colorado introduced the Keep Colorado Wild (KCW) pass, a new initiative designed to make donating to SAR teams more accessible. Available for residents who register their vehicles within the state, this pass provides annual access to Colorado’s state parks and could potentially contribute as much as $2.5 million to fund the state’s SAR teams.

Since SAR will not receive funding from the KCW pass until 2024, the state legislature offered $1 million allocated by Senate Bill 168 as bridge funding to support teams until then. This new legislation transferred the backcountry SAR responsibilities to the Division of Colorado Parks & Wildlife, allowing for a larger budget and more support for volunteers, including immunity from civil lawsuits in the event of a failed mission. Furthermore, if a volunteer sustains permanent disability or loses their life on a mission, the law provides their dependents access to higher education.

Furthermore, House Bill 1326 provided $2.25 million for multiyear grants for Counties and Backcountry Search and Rescue (BSAR) teams to purchase costly—but necessary—items such as reliable vehicles to respond to incidents more quickly.

“Teams have traditionally relied on volunteer-owned equipment for rescues. Funding has opened opportunities to purchase more team equipment,” says Perry Boydstun, program manager for BSAR. “Doing so alleviates costs for volunteers, increases safety and enhances equipment accessibility.”

Prior to the new legislation, Colorado’s SAR teams had to find funding through a mix of various channels. Teams primarily generated revenue from hunting and fishing licenses; OHV, snowmobile, and boat registrations; and through the sales of Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue CORSAR cards, a voluntary purchase that outdoor recreationists can make that helps reimburse counties that undertake a rescue. This traditional funding was the only statewide money available to Colorado backcountry SAR teams until 2021.

Additionally, some SAR teams receive funding through their county, and many fundraise independently.

“Fundraising takes quite a bit of time and energy with often very little return. Teams are beginning to use their volunteer time more for search-and-rescue-related activities since some of the financial burden is being alleviated,” says Boydstun.

SAR operations are not just a response to emergencies; they are a linchpin in Colorado’s robust outdoor recreation economy. A recent report has indicated that a staggering 92% of Colorado residents engage in outdoor recreation each year, underscoring the importance of maintaining a reliable, effective SAR system.

“We are focused on supporting the county sheriffs and Colorado’s multibillion-dollar outdoor recreation and tourism economy while also supporting the volunteer BSAR teams across the state,” says Jeff Sparhawk, CSAR executive director.

Funding is not the only SOS message SAR teams are sending out, however. CSAR’s spokesperson Anna DeBattiste says teams still face a multitude of obstacles, including recruiting, retaining, and equipping volunteers in mountain towns with high costs of living, mental health support, and public education of backcountry safety to minimize rescues.

“Bottom line is, while we expect this funding will help take some strain off our teams, it is too early to know the specifics,” says DeBattiste.

How You Can Help

One of the best ways outdoor enthusiasts can help rescuers is to understand how the system works and how they can take personal responsibility for their own welfare in the wild. Many people who spend time outside don’t realize that the vast majority of backcountry SAR teams in the U.S. are composed of unpaid volunteers. In fact, CSAR estimates its team members give an annual 400,000 volunteer hours, whether they be logging missions in the field, extensive training, or fundraising.

Furthermore, what most recreationists don’t realize is that assistance from SAR in Colorado is completely free. A strong ethical commitment exists to offer these services without imposing expenses. Many cases exist where people who delay seeking help out of concern for expensive rescue fees often attempt to self-rescue, and only find themselves in more precarious conditions, both for the individual and the SAR volunteers who ultimately receive the call.

A source, who requested not to divulge their real name out of respect for the individual that was rescued, shared a harrowing story of a friend’s incident on a remote section of the Colorado Trail that was ultimately resolved because of the assistance of SAR volunteers.

Nearly 20 miles from civilization, the source’s friend found their health deteriorating rapidly in the backcountry. Within days, their stomach issues resulted in an inability to move. Shivering and sick, they did not have the strength to roll over, let alone hike out.

Wary of incurring fees, the individual grappled with the severity of the situation and necessity for outside assistance. When self-ambulation was no longer an option, they called SAR, relieved to discover that their friend’s rescue would be free of charge.

“I felt guilty about needing to use SAR because you’re discouraged from using it,” the source said. “The SAR team didn’t make us feel like a burden or like we were doing the wrong thing.”

There are many ways to avoid a SAR rescue, especially in winter. In the snowy landscapes of Colorado, avalanches can be a serious threat, especially in areas known for winter sports such as skiing, snowboarding, and snowmobiling. Last season, Colorado saw 11 fatalities from slides.

Kelsy Been, official for Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), emphasized the importance of being prepared, educated, and well-equipped for wintertime activities. Those venturing into avalanche terrain should always check the forecast; acquire the necessary knowledge and training; and ensure they carry and know how to use proper safety gear, including an avalanche transceiver, probe pole, and shovel.

Furthermore, recreationists should plan to be self-sufficient from the outset, learning the skills necessary to avoid becoming a SAR statistic. That goes a long way in the backcountry to prevent incidents and lessen the burden on SAR teams.

Rescuing the Rescuers

While the new legislation for Colorado’s SAR teams is a positive first step in strengthening this vital system, SAR continues to grapple with the challenge of insufficient volunteers to meet growing demands, funding for essential gear and programs, and mental health support.

“We encourage Colorado residents and visitors to appreciate the thousands of hours put in by volunteers and sheriffs across the state in helping to keep backcountry recreationists safe,” says DeBattiste.

The safety and success of rescuers themselves—who occasionally need a lifeline—depend on the public’s support. That’s not just in dollars, but in gratitude for their efforts and participation with local SAR teams. It’s now the public’s turn to answer the call—to ensure that the heroes of the backcountry can continue to answer ours when we need them.

All Photos courtesy of Colorado Search & Rescue Association (CSAR)

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