Take a Hike, Kids

08/29/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

While Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazer says that outdoor activity is important for young people, Scott Mason's story will make kids and their parents think twice.

Mid-way through his strenuous day hike in the Mountains of New Hampshire, 17-year-old Mason sprained his ankle, and then tried to take a shortcut to save himself pain. Unfortunately, he ran into melting snow from an unseasonably warm April and got himself lost. An Eagle Scout, he was able to survive his ordeal through calm wits and an ability to navigate the perils of nature. He created a fire with hand sanitizer. He was alone for three days, protecting himself in a rock crevice, until found by a search and rescue (SAR) team.

Now, here's the kicker.

In July, the NH department of Fish and Game decided Mason was "negligent" for veering off the allotted path when injured, and charged him a whopping $25,000 for the rescue.

This is an absurd amount to charge a high-schooler, especially for a logical choice that was made at the time of his injury. He wasn't negligent in any other way--he was clearly prepared and able to take care of himself for days, bringing food and tools. He had even informed someone of his trip.

Even more broadly worrisome, fining this young man intimidates kids and their parents from engaging in outdoor activity in a time when we desperately need it. Statistics show that teens watch over 3 hours of television a day. Obesity is a national health problem. The CDC calls it a "serious health concern for children and adolescents." Survey data between 1976-1980 and 2003-2006 showed that the prevalence of obesity for kids in Mason's age bracket (12-19) increased from 5.0% to 17.6 percent.

It will also have a chilling effect on parental consent to kids exploring the great outdoors. Masons' worried mother was the one who called for a search and rescue team. Parents will be far more reluctant to let their kids explore in the forests if they will be the ones worrying about when they should make the call, and potentially footing a hefty bill.

Even the President of the the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR) said that "billing for search and rescue operations is a dangerous practice that should be avoided," and that "the mission of SAR organizations is to save lives, not just the lives of those who can afford to pay."

The money for search and rescue operations has long been a contested issue, and no one's arguing that the bills are pretty. For states like New Hampshire, bills can get into the hundreds of thousands. In the National Parks, the tab can get up to 4 or 5 million.

Currently, most search and rescue operations come out of your tax dollars. (That means you are also protected, wherever you may go.) Some places add flat fees for entry or rental equipment.

Another intellectually popular option, particularly among adventurers themselves, is that hikers or back country explorers buy insurance. It's an interesting idea, but also has it's drawbacks. Regardless of whether or not said insurance is available, this could lead to the kind of wealth bias that insurance has created in our health care system. Plus, those outdoor adventurers who are aware enough to be buying insurance probably aren't the inexperienced ones who would so desperately need it. Many new explorers or city-dwellers underestimate how much water they will need in a desert or mountain environment, how quickly weather can change at sea, or how easy it is to get lost. They are the ones who would need insurance the most.

A system of severe fines will do nothing but intimidate people from what we need to do so desperately: get outside. It makes cityfolk think twice about that getaway to the country. It hurts tourism. It punishes poor people and the middle class. And in this particular case, it sends a counterproductive message to kids and their parents.

Don't let Scott Mason's story set a new precedent.