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Going all-in on funding for avalanche forecasts, backcountry education

Friends of Colorado Avalanche Information Center seeks members to reach funding goals

A skier hit the Sugar Bowls outside of Buttermilk on Jan. 4, 2020. Backcountry use is expected to soar this winter. (Bob Ward/courtesy photo)

Just when backcountry skiing and snowboarding is expected to explode, a group promoting safety off-piste safety had a big chunk of its fundraising tools wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Friends of Colorado Avalanche Information Center is mounting its first membership drive ever this fall after the tried-and-true in-person events that it held for years had to be canceled. Rather than throwing up its arms in defeat, the nonprofit organization has rolled up its sleeves in determination.

Aaron Carlson, Friends of CAIC executive director, said its mission is too vital to ease up now. It wants to continue to provide cash to the avalanche center for forecasts for backcountry visitors and it needs to continue its own avalanche awareness efforts.



“If there is ever a year to go all-in, this is the year,” Carlson said in a recent interview.

With longer lines and reservations common at most Colorado ski areas because of social distancing requirements, there is expected to be more people venturing into the backcountry to get their kicks in the snow. There was a surge in uphilling at ski areas and backcountry travel last winter after the abrupt closure of ski areas on March 14 because of the spread of the COVID-19 disease.



Last year, Friends of CAIC spent $315,379 on forecasting and operations, technology, and education and awareness, according to its page on the CAIC website. That included $125,000 in direct cash to CAIC to fund 2.5 of its seasonal forecaster positions as well as $92,262 for technology, $76,290 for program management and $21,827 for education and awareness.

This winter, Friends aims to provide between $150,000 and $200,000 in direct cash to the avalanche center to help fund seasonal forecasters, Carlson said. It takes about $50,000 per winter for each of the season forecasting positions. CAIC has six seasonal forecasters, including one dedicated to the Aspen-Marble zone.

In the past, Friends of CAIC has relied on in-person events for a large chunk of its revenue. Parties, education workshop and presentations by CAIC personnel have been big draws. Last year, for example, in-person events raised 26 percent of its total revenue of $767,000.

Friends of CAIC started promoting membership earlier this. There is a “join/donate” button on the upper right side of the CAIC homepage. People can still make one-time donations but they are also urged to join with an annual membership. They have reached about 1,100 members, Carlson said on Nov. 25.

Memberships start at $35 but any amount will be accepted. Carlson said he received a very memorable letter recently with $12.67 and a note from a donor explaining that’s all he could afford. Carlson said he is grateful for that spirit.

Friends of CAIC has also taken some of its events virtual. There is a Benefit eBash Weeklong Auction going on through Dec. 4. Bids will be accepted until 4 p.m. Friday on ski and snowboard equipment, apparel, avalanche safety gear and more. A link to the auction can be found at Friends of CAIC’s Facebook page.

CAIC is a program within the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. Like all state government agencies, its future funding is a little muddled from the economic slowdown due to the pandemic.

Its total revenue in fiscal year 2019 was $1.7 million. A contract for avalanche forecasting and training for Colorado Department of Transportation personnel provided $785,000 or 46 percent of the revenue. A state severance tax provided $638,000 or 37 percent.

The $150,000 donated by Friends of CAIC generated about 9 percent of the avalanche center’s revenue, according to CAIC’s annual report.

CAIC provided forecasts on 217 days last year. It had 2.2 million website views thanks. There were 21 percent more observations submitted by backcountry users last year, in part because of a more user-friendly app.

Carlson urged anyone who enjoys the backcountry or has an interest in safety to help provide funding for the avalanche center.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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