Colorado avalanche center faces budget crunch | AspenTimes.com

Colorado avalanche center faces budget crunch

Bob Berwyn
Summit County correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

Bob Berwyn/Summit DailyThe Colorado Avalanche Information Center helps forecast and control snowslides like the Professor slidepath near Arapahoe Basin, pictured in a January 2008 file photo. This known avalanche zone can threaten both U.S. Highway 6 and the parking lot at A-Basin.

BOULDER, Colo. ” A $25,000 budget shortfall going into the season could crimp backcountry avalanche forecasts this winter.

Unless the gap is covered, the Boulder-based Colorado Avalanche Information Center may have to curtail spring season forecasts, or in a worst-case scenario, shut down one of its field offices.

The annual Avalanche Jam ” the single biggest fundraiser for the center ” was canceled this year because of a permit tussle with Boulder.

The event, usually held in September, raised $15,000 last year.

“They (Boulder) wanted to tax the money we raise,” said avalanche center director Ethan Greene. “They were taking a hard-nose approach to it.”

The avalanche center, part of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, wanted to partner with a nonprofit group to hold the event this fall.

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But Boulder officials rejected three different groups and gave the center conflicting and inaccurate tax information, Greene said.

In a separate setback, an annual $20,000 donation from Colorado Ski Country USA was cut in half this year.

The trade group for the state’s ski resorts is facing its own budget challenges this year after Vail Resorts dropped out. The organization’s overall budget was cut in half as a result. That probably was the main reason for the cut in funding to the avalanche center, Greene said.

Greene recently met with officials at Vail Resorts to discuss potential funding.

“They were extremely helpful. They appreciate what we do, but it’s a matter of sorting out the dollars and cents,” Greene said.

The avalanche center runs a statewide network of hotlines geared toward recreational travelers, offering daily forecasts and evaluations of backcountry avalanche hazards.

The backcountry hotlines partially overlap with a program funded by the Colorado Department of Transportation aimed at controlling snow slides along high mountain passes.

The transportation department funds forecasting work for highway corridors, but the backcountry program is mostly dependent on grassroots donations and fundraising, with some state money coming in from taxes raised by mining, oil and gas drilling.

The $25,000 budget gap is almost equivalent to the salary of one full-time seasonal forecaster, Greene said.

There are no plans to cut staff, but Greene said the spring season forecasts could be dropped because of the shortage.

Backcountry enthusiasts can step up to cover at least part of the shortfall by joining the Friends of the Avalanche Center support group and by making donations, said Scott Toepfer, a Breckenridge-based forecaster with the center.

“We’re playing catch-up already,” he said, hoping to spur new memberships in the Friends group.

Summit County already has an extensive network of supporters, but there is room for improvement, especially among newcomers to the area who are just learning about the center’s services.

“Once you discover what we do, you become an addict,” he said, referring to the center’s daily bulletins. Members of the Friends group get twice-daily e-mail updates, with accurate zone-based forecasts for precipitation, temperatures and avalanche hazards.

“It’s really impressive to see the level of support coming from Summit County, especially for its size, as compared to Boulder or Denver,” he said, urging local residents to step it up a notch and tell their friends about the friends group or increase their membership donation to the next level.

Besides the Avalanche Jam, major fundraisers for the avalanche center last season included the A-Basin Beacon Bowl and the Loveland Ski Area Corn Harvest, which each raised about $5,000.

Individual resorts also made cash donations, including $2,500 from Aspen, $2,000 from Breckenridge, $1,000 from Vail, A-Basin and Beaver Creek and another $1,000 from the women of the Breckenridge Ski Patrol.

Local governments also kicked in some money, including $5,000 from Breckenridge, $1,500 from Summit County, $1,000 from Frisco, $500 from Dillon and $250 from Silverthorne.

Another $20,000 came from the U.S. Forest Service.

The Colorado Department of Transportation paid a total of $315,000, and the agency also pitched in with a $15,000 grant.

State severance-tax funding ” from oil, gas and mining activities ” amounted to $163,000 last year.

Grants from foundations and private associations totaled $32,500, including $1,800 from the Summit Foundation and $2,500 from the Vail Valley foundation.

The center’s total annual budget for the 2007-2008 season was about $863,000.

Visitation to the avalanche center’s web site doubled from the previous year, to 880,000 visitors totaling more than 3 million page views.

The Summit County zone was the busiest part of the site, with 233,000 visitors, followed by the Front Range link, with 175,000 visitors.

The phone-based hotline in Summit County was also popular despite early season technical difficulties that limited access. The Summit County line, (970) 668-0600, was called 8,241 times.

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