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Saitama Pref. moves to charge for mountain helicopter rescues

The Saitama Prefectural Assembly is debating a bill to charge people who are helped by mountain rescue helicopters about 50,000 yen per hour.

    The bill, expected to pass on March 27 at a plenary session, would add the charge to an existing ordinance. The charge would be approximately equal to fuel costs. The bill is the first in the nation that would charge mountain climbers for using helicopter rescue services.

    The prefectural government has three rescue helicopters. Last fiscal year, they were dispatched 11 times and actually used in rescues five times. The prefecture does not publically release the operating costs of the helicopters, but according to a source in the prefecture who is knowledgeable about mountains, "In the case of a private-sector helicopter, it costs a few hundreds of thousands of yen per hour."

    The charge amount is based on a fuel use estimate of 360 to 550 liters per hour of flight. A member of the prefectural assembly's Liberal Democratic Party faction that introduced the bill explains, "Mountain rescues involve serious dangers. If we look at this as charging for services, the idea of seeking a certain amount of money from those caught in (mountain) accidents leads to equality among prefectural residents. Charging for the rescues will also reduce the number of rash mountain climbing attempts."

    The bill includes measures to reduce the cost for people in the timber industry and people receiving welfare payments. Other details, such as whether to charge mountain climbers from the prefecture who are rescued from mountains near prefectural borders by neighboring prefectures' helicopters, will be the subject of future adjustments.

    There is also opposition to the bill. Katsuzo Tashiro, the chairman of the tourism association for the city of Chichibu, the municipality with the most mountain climber tourists in the prefecture, says, "Mountain climbers may avoid Chichibu if the story that the local mountains are 'for pay' grabs the spotlight."

    Shin Murakoshi, professor of mountain risk management at the Faculty of Education at Shizuoka University, says, "Mountain climbing should be done under one's own responsibility, so I can understand charging the recipients (of rescue services). However there are accidents that are beyond human control, and anti-disaster education should be done at the same time."

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