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Colorado search and rescue teams poised to get more financial support in 2023

Aerial Snow Mapping
Brittany Peterson
/
AP
The Blue River, an important source of water for Denver and others along the Colorado River, is surrounded by snow, Monday, April 18, 2022, near Blue River, Colo.

A new law taking effect Jan. 1 is projected to offer more financial support to the hundreds of search and rescue volunteers who brave dangerous conditions to save lives in Colorado’s backcountry.

Senate Bill 168 also gave volunteers immunity from any civil lawsuits that might be filed after an unsuccessful rescue mission.

And if rescuers are disabled or killed on a mission, their dependents have new access to free higher education classes at state colleges and universities.

The state has made a commitment over multiple administrations … to encourage more people to get outdoors and increase our recreational economy,” State Sen. Kerry Donovan said earlier this year when she worked to pass the bill. “As we see that increase in outdoor recreational use, of course, we're going to see an increasing number of people who need help from search and rescue. And remember, these are volunteers who staff these teams, and there's no charge to the folks that get in trouble and have these massive support teams come and help them.”

Jeff Sparhawk, the executive director of the Colorado Search and Rescue Association, lobbied for the improvements earlier this year.

“In reality, this is just bringing us up on par with all the other emergency responders,” he told lawmakers at an April hearing at the state Capitol. “We’re not asking for something special. We still are trying to make it so we run very cost -effective, very efficient, very safe operations.”

As part of the new law, Parks and Wildlife will also start overseeing the administration and funding of rescue operations starting Jan. 1 instead of the Department of Local Affairs.

The change is expected to give rescuers a bigger budget.

Search and rescue funding is also poised to get a significant boost from another new law taking effect on Jan. 1.

Starting this year, all residents who register their vehicles in Colorado will pay for a discounted state parks pass unless they opt-out.

The state is projecting the program will raise as much as $35 a year, and up to $2.5 million of that revenue will be spent on search and rescue operations.

Parks and Wildlife studied other potential improvements to Search and Rescue earlier this year.

Recommendations ranged from offering workers compensation to rescuers to reimbursing them for the mileage they log getting to and from missions.

Sparhawk, the director of the Colorado Search and Rescue Association, called the new legal protections and disability benefits a good “first step.”

Scott Franz is an Investigative Reporter with KUNC.