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On Sunday, among the avalanche of bills (pun intended) that Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed into law in the past week, was SB 21-245 a bill focused on supporting the state’s search and rescue organizations. While Polis himself says that he doesn’t spend much time in the backcountry, he understands the importance of the search and rescue work they do on a daily basis to keep Coloradans and our visitors safe.

“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.”

He signed the bill in Eagle, at Bonfire Brewing; which played a central role as the search headquarters during the effort to retrieve three well-known Eagle residents from a February avalanche near Silverton that buried these three pillars of the Eagle community. The co-founder of Bonfire Brewing 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.

Avalanche on Cottonwood Pass. Ark Valley Voice File photo

The bill directs the Colorado Division of 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.

Polis was joined at the bill-signing by Colorado Senator Kerry Donovan and Jeff Sparhawk with the Colorado Search and Rescue Association who helped the bill through the Legislature.

“Please take this law as a sign that this whole state, at this moment, invested in and believes in what you guys are doing,” said Donovan, who was one of the bills sponsors, adding “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.”

The bill directs the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife to conduct outreach and training related to the physical and psychological support needs of backcountry search and rescue volunteers, with the goal of better-supporting those teams operating in backcountry search and rescue (often volunteers). That support may now include working with consultants, providing programs, or creating a grant program for local governments or nonprofit organizations providing backcountry search and rescue.

“We 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 towards the future.”