Backcountry search and rescue bill signed into law by Governor Polis

In Members, Public by Colorado Search and Rescue Association (CSAR)

We are pleased to announce that SB 21 -245, the Backcountry Search and Rescue Bill, has passed the Colorado State Legislature and was signed by Governor Polis on Sunday, June 27, 2021. The bill signing ceremony was held at Bonfire Brewing in Eagle, Colorado, an establishment co-founded by Andy Jessen, one of three victims of a deadly avalanche in Silverton in February of 2021. The bodies of the three victims were recovered by San Juan County Search and Rescue, and Andy’s wife Amanda attended the ceremony to pay tribute to the search and rescue community. Also in attendance were bill co-sponsors, Rep. Perry Will and Senator Kerry Donovan; Colorado Department of Natural Resources Director Dan Gibbs; and members of CSAR, Vail Mountain Rescue, Fremont SAR, Front Range Rescue Dogs, Alpine Rescue Team, Douglas County SAR, Summit County Rescue Group, Chaffee North SAR, Routt County SAR, Mountain Rescue Aspen, San Juan County SAR, La Plata County SAR, Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment, and Rocky Mountain Rescue Group.

CSAR president Jeff Sparhawk addresses the audience with Governor Polis, Rep Will and Sen Donovan in the background. Photo by Scott Bellow.

“Organized backcountry search and rescue has been serving Colorado for over 70 years,” Polis said. “This bill that we’re about to sign … is the first time that we’re developing a proactive backcountry search and rescue structure that will really grow with our state.”

Sen Donovan was visibly emotional as she addressed the rescuers in the audience. “I hope that the next time you’re in 15-below weather, or when you’re crashing in your truck at a trailhead because you’re too tired to drive home, or you’re looking around that next bend of the river, checking behind that next rock, that this can be a little bit of some energy, knowing that it wasn’t just your community, it wasn’t just your neighbor, it wasn’t just your spouse that believed in you, that at this moment, the whole state said search and rescue deserves our support, and deserves our respect.”

Photo by Scott Bellow.

CSAR’s position going into this legislative effort was that after over 70 years of dedicated and selfless service to Colorado, the backcountry search and rescue community must seek a better way.  The increased popularity of outdoor recreation, a dramatic influx of new residents, changing technology, and the changing demographics of our mountain communities led CSAR to begin to proactively engineer a better system for backcountry search and rescue before the current system is unable to provide the expected and outstanding services Colorado deserves.  Many partners and stakeholders had input in this process. This bill lays the foundation, based on data collection and stakeholder meetings, to start to build better structures, better relationships, and better systems.  Now that it has passed, CSAR and its members will be collaboratively working with federal, state, and local government agencies, along with the outdoor industry and other NGOs, to develop a sustainable SAR system for all of Colorado.

Team members pose with Governor Polis. Photo by Scott Bellow.

In conjunction with this bill, our friends at Colorado Parks and Wildlife introduced SB21-249, The Keep Colorado Wild Pass bill, which was signed into law by Governor Polis on June 21st in Golden Gate Canyon State Park . This bill creates an option for Colorado residents to purchase a reduced-cost pass to Colorado State Parks when registering a non-commercial vehicle. This method will reduce the current cost of $80 by at least 50%, and potentially all the way down to $20. If the expected increased participation occurs, some of the funds from the Keep Colorado Wild Pass program will go to support backcountry search and rescue (BSAR) and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center beginning in 2023. This is the first time since 1987 that the State of Colorado has supported backcountry search and rescue in a meaningful way, and we greatly appreciate this creative solution to funding BSAR and CAIC.