By Lynne Tuohy
---- — CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — The recent rescue of a 5-year-old New Hampshire girl missing in the woods for six hours highlights the role Fish and Game conservation officers play and underscores why the division routinely outspends its search-and-rescue budget.
The search came just ahead of what is traditionally the busiest time of year for search and rescue missions — when bugs subside, foliage lures droves of hikers, hunters take to the woods and sub-freezing temperatures descend on mountain peaks.
“To say they’re busy is an understatement,” Maj. Kevin Jordan said of the 45 conservation officers who undertake search and rescue missions statewide. “We end up by mid-September triaging calls.”
Fish and Game is self-funded, with its revenues coming largely from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and boat, snowmobile and ATV registrations. The agency’s annual search and rescue fund — which averages about $180,000 — is based on a $2 contribution from each registration sold. And it’s never enough.
For the fiscal year that ended June 30, the cost of search and rescue missions was $263,000.
Just after 7 p.m. on Sept. 8, rescuers found 5-year-old Eleanor Coutermarsh, of Brookline, about a mile from where she was last seen playing with other children in a wooded area of Gilmanton. The temperature dropped into the 30s later that night.
The search was over in about six hours, but not before seven conservation officers combed the woods, a Massachusetts State Police helicopter was deployed, state police and search dogs were brought in and trained volunteers joined the search. Jordan said that he hasn’t yet tallied the cost of that search and that it’s not the first priority.
“We couldn’t be happier,” Fish and Game Lt. Jim Juneau said of her rescue. “We’d still be out there. That’s the way that we would play it.”
That’s how it did play out last year in Rumney, when 72-year-old Hugh Armstrong failed to return from a walk while on vacation with his family near Stinson Lake. A full-scale search was underway for a week and involved aircraft, boats, canines, divers and trained volunteers.
Armstrong turned up after more than two weeks and nearly 1,000 miles south, in his home state of North Carolina, without remembering who he was. That search cost about $50,000, Jordan said.
The search for Armstrong and the recoveries of seven drowning victims helped drive up last year’s costs. To meet the deficit, they dipped into the agency’s general fund.
New Hampshire is one of eight states that have statutory authority to bill hikers and others for the cost of rescue missions. But collecting is another matter, Jordan said. Over a five year period, the department billed $83,025 for 38 missions and collected $54,317, or about 64 percent.
In 2012, the department billed $13,159 in rescues and collected just $622.
“It hasn’t been lucrative for us,” Jordan said.
Several pieces of legislation to change the way rescues are funded have stalled over the past 20 years, Jordan said. There was a proposal during the last legislative session to charge rescued people between $350 and $600 but the bill died after opponents said it would generate ill will and could result in distressed hikers delaying calls for help.