Recently, a volunteer with one of Colorado’s search and rescue teams contacted me to express his horror over ongoing legislative efforts in my home state. The New Hampshire bill, he said, is dangerous, adding that no one he knows on local search and rescue teams supports it.
This piqued my interest. What are legislators across the country proposing, and are Colorado search and rescue teams concerned that our state might follow suit?
It turns out that the Granite State is considering passing a bill that would strengthen the ability of local officials to recoup backcountry search and rescue expenses from negligent hikers. This has caused quite the uproar in outdoor circles, and for good reason.
Outdoor organizations generally agree that search and rescue efforts should remain free of charge. Similar to 911 emergency services, free backcountry emergency access increases the likelihood that people in need will seek help, and also decreases the inequity that comes with placing financial liability on accidents.
Accordingly, in most states, outdoor rescue operations in public-access areas remain free, including in Colorado.
But a few states, such as New Hampshire, have laws on the books that allow officials to crack down on negligent recreators. While New Hampshire is the only state to actually use the laws regularly thus far, their officials now pursue reimbursement in roughly 6% of rescues. The new bill would go a step further and allow state officials to suspend the driver’s licenses of anyone refusing to open their wallet.
There are no similar measures currently proposed in Colorado, and hopefully it stays this way. Yet it’s also a well-known fact that local teams are sorely underfunded, especially with the state’s increase in backcountry use. Given that teams rely on limited state assistance and primarily private donors and grants, it’s easy to see their fear.
Discussions of free rescue services in Colorado amplified in 2016 after Steamboat Ski Area began alerting skiers that they could be charged up to $500 for out-of-bounds rescues. State legislators are already looking for more ways to increase search and rescue funding since then, but it hasn’t proved enough to date.
While Steamboat’s approach is nothing like the extent of New Hampshire’s punitive laws, it’s a worrisome trend that most outdoor organizations hope can be avoided. Thankfully, there is a way that all Colorado recreators can help ensure local teams stay funded via the state: It’s called the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue card.
Referred to as CORSAR in short, recreators can buy a card for only $3 annually, or $12 for a 5-year card. The CORSAR card is not insurance; it will not alleviate buyers from medical bills. But being a card carrier does help prioritize reimbursement for the team that responds if you are in need of rescue. Without one, the team may be out of luck in recouping funds from the state.
Unfortunately, the method of purchasing the CORSAR card has recently changed, and not for the better.
Although the Colorado Department of Local Affairs website still offers a helpful SAR page and contacts, the purchase link for CORSAR is no longer functional; I know because I tried to use it multiple times to no avail. After several attempts to track down help via the DOLA contacts listed, and no returned phone calls, I started seeking answers.
This is when I came across a 2022 legislative bill spearheaded by Sens. Kerry Donovan and Bob Rankin, along with Reps. Julie McCluskie and Perry Will, that transferred oversight of search and rescue services in Colorado from DOLA to the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife as of Jan. 1.
Frustratingly, the new CORSAR purchasing system under CPW is substantially more difficult to find and utilize, at least for now. A Google search did not locate the new CORSAR link, nor did using the search tool on the CPW site. Eventually, calling the CPW customer service line was the only way I was able to locate the new card link, with the rep placing me on a fairly lengthy hold while she also learned how it was relocated under the CPW transfer.
Here’s what I figured out: The CORSAR card still exists, but less obviously. Using the main CPW website, Coloradans wanting to purchase a CORSAR card online should now select “Buy & Apply.” Then, under the “Go Hunting & Fishing” tab, select “Buy Habitat Stamps & Other Licenses.” From here, scroll down to the two SAR options and click purchase. As a non-hunter or fisher, I might add that I would have never thought to look here for a CORSAR card.
After selecting your card of choice, which is more difficult as there are no details of what each card is or what it does, you will then have to check out your cart either by logging in using an existing account, or by completing a far more complicated form that is clearly more frequently used for hunting and fishing licenses. It even requires a Social Security number.
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Purchasing the CORSAR card has long been recommended by Colorado search and rescue teams as a way to help maintain free rescues in our state, and efforts to increase awareness of the card program could go a long way in helping to ensure that Colorado avoids any talks of penalizing outdoor enthusiasts.
However, the recent transition to CPW makes supporting local search and rescue teams with the CORSAR card far more difficult, in addition to leaving Coloradans less easily informed of search and rescue operations.
Until a better transition can be achieved, local search and rescue teams will need to update web links on CORSAR purchasing, and outdoor enthusiasts will need to share the word within the community of where to find and buy the new card. Without these efforts, fewer CORSAR cards may be purchased and local teams risk being even further underfunded.
Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.
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