A dip in funding for the organization that forecasts avalanche danger for skiers and snowmobilers will mean less of the backcountry will be pre-tested for hazardous conditions this winter—even as the numbers of people using the backcountry boom.
Since 1980, the avalanche center has tested snow conditions and issued daily reports on relative danger on several hotlines and a Website. Bruce Tremper, director of the Utah Avalanche Center, says to make ends meet for the coming winter, the organization likely will cut back the number of avalanche reports it produces for areas outside of the Wasatch Front—scaling them back to a single weekend advisory issued on Friday. Daily advisories will continue for the Wasatch Front backcountry, Tremper says, though the center’s traditional November to April forecasting season may be shortened.
Tremper believes the funding reduction is temporary, but much may depend on the health of the overall economy. In Utah, lawmakers are meeting in a special session of the Legislature to decide where to trim the budget to make up for declining tax receipts. Meanwhile the U.S. Forest Service, which operates the avalanche center, also is in the midst of a budget crisis. So supporters of the 28-year-old avalanche center have begun looking for a savior, a new home or a sugar daddy to keep the center functioning over the long term.
The Utah Avalanche Center is officially a program of the Forest Service, but it cobbles its $240,000 annual budget together from a variety of sources, the biggest single source being the state of Utah. Due to an accounting snafu, the center finds itself $50,000 short.
Center supporters also anticipate a reduction in funding from the Forest Service, which currently provides one-fifth of the avalanche center’s budget. Nationally, the Forest Services’ budget has been eaten up by a long and expensive wildfire season in California. Forest Service offices in Washington, D.C., recently announced the agency would be trimming $400 million from its budget.
“It’s not to the point of losing the avalanche center, but components may fall by the wayside,” says Curt Kennedy, a board member of the nonprofit Friends of the Utah Avalanche Center. The group lobbies for the center, runs avalanche education programs and raises money to support operations. Friends traditionally raises about $50,000 in private donations for center operations each year and more for its own educational efforts.
The cutbacks at the Utah Avalanche Center for the coming winter will primarily affect snowmobile riders. Utah’s Division of State Parks and Recreation has been paying for avalanche forecasting in the western Uintas and in the Logan area since the deaths of three snowmobilers in the winter of 2004-05. That state contribution may drop in the future, however, because the state parks division needs to find more money in its budget to care for the swelling number of summer off-road vehicle riders.
The Wasatch Front, where the avalanche center focuses most of its attention, has seen a large increase in winter backcountry users, but no corresponding increase in avalanche deaths. By contrast, the center can afford just a single employee to cover all the Uintas. It is outside of the Wasatch Front where avalanche accidents are on the upswing.
The areas impacted by this year’s cutbacks—running from Heber to Evanston, Wyo.—are difficult for skiers to access but have become increasingly popular with snowmobile riders. The avalanche center estimates about 60,000 snowmobilers now access the Uintas each season.
Jay Ombach, president of the Utah Snowmobile Association, which helps fund the Utah Avalanche Center, says the advent of special mountain snowmobiles in the early 1990s has greatly increased the popularity of the sport in Utah. “The technology has grown so much with snowmobiles, they can get farther and farther back in more remote areas,” he says. And in recent years the avalanche center has made progress in getting to the high Uintas for snow testing in advance of riders.
Across the country, about twice as many snowmobile riders die in avalanches than other backcountry enthusiasts. In Utah, deaths remain evenly spread out among skiers, snowshoers and snowboarders, says the avalanche center’s Tremper. But the number of people in the backcountry keeps on growing.
“When I started in ’86, it was just telemark skiers. I knew almost all of them by name. Now skiers are the minority. Snowmobilers are the biggest user group,” he says. “We are trying to look for ways to fund the [avalanche center] to keep up with this expansion in the use of the backcountry. Fatalities will continue to go up as long as our funding numbers are going down.”
Last winter, two people died in avalanches during the holiday season, snowmobile riders who died in slides outside the Wasatch Front.
Paul Diegel, president of the Friends group, says he won’t know until snow falls if he can afford to offer jobs to many seasonal forecasters. “That seems to happen every fall. It just drives us crazy,” he says.
To get on more certain footing, the Friends hope to build an endowment large enough to permanently fund center operations with private money. But without the big private donations required for such a permanent solution, the center’s Friends also are considering breaking off from the Forest Service to find a new home better able to support the service. The group has begun talking to state officials about making avalanche forecasting a state project. Public safety is traditionally a state function, Diegel says. And avalanche forecasting, he argues, also aids tourism.
Interested parties can find out more about the center and make donations at UtahAvalancheCenter.com.