Search-and-rescue missions in Utah's rugged backcountry don't come cheap.
For years, lost hikers and wayward rafters have sometimes had to foot the bill when rescuers pluck them out of the red-rock wilderness. Problem is, many of them don't pay.
As the number of rescues has risen along with tourism, local officials have searched for ways to fund the missions. Now, Grand County is turning collection agencies on those who fail to pay.
''We had to do something,'' said Kent Green, a sergeant with the sheriff's department in Grand County, where it costs $245 just to send rescue crews out the door.
Grand County, a community of 8,500 residents concentrated around the city of Moab, once averaged only nine search-and-rescue missions yearly. That was two decades ago.
Now, with tourism doubled, the county undertakes at least 80 missions each year, with a high of 120.
Utah is not the only place where lost hikers can be billed for rescues. Several states, including Idaho, Hawaii and New Hampshire, allow counties to issue bills.
Collection laws have drawn protest from critics who view rescue operations as a tax-funded service, just like firefighting.
Green, the Grand County sheriff's sergeant, said sending a bill to a family who lost a loved one is a ''big gray area'' that makes him uncomfortable.
He recalled a search for a missing 13-year-old boy that used airplanes and helicopters and at least 50 volunteers. After four days, searchers found the boy's body. The boy's family received a bill for tens of thousands of dollars.