Polis signs backcountry search and rescue bill from Bonfire Brewing in Eagle
Bill seeks to provide funding, coordination and education for backcountry search and rescue groups
EAGLE — Gov. Jared Polis doesn’t spend much time in the backcountry, but on Sunday, June 27, he told rescuers that he knows the importance of the work they perform on a daily basis.
Polis was speaking from Bonfire Brewing, an Eagle County establishment that became a place to honor the work of search and rescue following the large effort required to retrieve three well-known Eagle residents from an avalanche near Silverton in February. Bonfire Brewing co-founder Andy Jessen and Eagle residents Adam Palmer and Seth Bossung were killed in the slide. Jessen and Palmer both served on the Eagle Town Council and, along with Bossung, were community pillars.
Acknowledging the setting as a place to honor Jessen, Palmer and Bossung, Polis signed Senate Bill 21-245, Backcountry Search and Rescue in Colorado, while saluting the work of search and rescue groups across Colorado.
“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.”
The bill directs the Colorado Parks and Wildlife to study and develop recommendations on backcountry search and rescue coordination between agencies, adequacy of resources and benefits available to volunteers, funding needs for equipment and reimbursement, and the needs for volunteer training and public education.
The bill directs Parks and Wildlife to conduct outreach and training related to the physical and psychological support needs of backcountry search and rescue volunteers.
Jeff Sparhawk with the Colorado Search and Rescue Association helped the bill through the Legislature. Sparhawk said while rescue crews know their job well — helping those who found themselves in unfamiliar territory — his group had to enter unfamiliar territory in examining how their needs could be better served. And they, too, had to reach out for help.
“We in search and rescue have embarked on taking our future by the reins and figuring out what we’re going to do,” Sparhawk said. “We recognize we need help. We need collaboration with the state and federal folks and our local officials to make this work. But at the same time, we’re not giving up our traditions. We’ve been doing this a long time, and we know what to do. We know how to do this, but we’re now open-minded. We’re now thinking toward the future.”
Polis said with Colorado greeting visitors from all over the world, sometimes those visitors are not so well prepared for what they might encounter, an issue that has been perpetuating a growing number of calls to search and rescue organizations across the state.
“We welcome everybody, we encourage preparedness, but we also want to make sure that our volunteers who provide search and rescue services really are able to have the resources they need to be able to help those in need,” Polis said.
Sparhawk described the increase in the need for his groups’ services as the outcome of a strong desire to be in Colorado.
“Colorado’s growing, our economy is growing, which means the need for backcountry search and rescue is growing,” Sparhawk said. “The need for law enforcement, the need for fire and medical services — all of this is growing. And it’s more, and it’s more, and it’s more. It’s more time away from work, for us, and it’s more time away from our families. And we owe it to our families and our communities to do this and do it right.”
State Sen. Kerry Donovan, of Vail, was one of the bill’s prime sponsors along with Rep. Julie McCluskie and Sen. Bob Rankin, who represent Summit County.
Donovan described it as “a gut-check bill,” which brought the voice of the mountain community to the Capitol.
Donovan addressed directly the many search and rescue representatives from around the state who were in attendance Sunday.
“Please take this law as a sign that this whole state, at this moment, invested in and believes in what you guys are doing,” Donovan said. “And I hope that the next time in the 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. So thanks to you all.”
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