Utah avalanche control runs into boundaries
The Salt Lake Tribune/AP
Aspen, CO Colorado
SALT LAKE CITY ” Snow is piling up in the Wasatch canyons ahead of the annual skier swarm, leading Utah’s avalanche fighters to again train their aging guns on the hillsides.
They will point their Cold War artillery above Little Cottonwood Canyon Road and bombard mounds that otherwise would dangerously snowball. It’s a dramatic way to protect the thousands who drive to the Alta and Snowbird ski areas every day, but one that’s fast becoming outdated and that officials would like to replace with modern gas-charged exploders.
Problem is, many of Little Cottonwood’s avalanche chutes are in protected wilderness and, while you can shell them with a cannon, you can’t legally set permanent blasters on them. That’s an obstacle Alta town officials and others would like to change to protect their only access, although they know that building a political consensus to mess with wilderness is tough sledding.
“You’re firing military artillery in a populated area,” Alta Mayor Tom Pollard said, noting only the most graphic reason that cannon fire may be endangered in these canyons. Others point to dwindling supplies of aging ordnance, environmental hazards and the fact that state and local officials are starting to hear from an Army that wants its guns back.
Most long-term alternatives would require either a congressionally approved shift in the Twin Peaks Wilderness Area boundary or a rewriting of the 1984 bill that established it in order to allow installation of gas-fired exploders commercially known as Gazexes.
Because a coalition including Save Our Canyons and Salt Lake City water officials already is discussing a plan to expand Wasatch Front wilderness boundaries, some hope there is an opening to also nudge the wilderness away from the road. The wilderness area currently bumps up against the roadway, and it would have to move uphill to a ridge above the avalanche chutes.
“Here’s an opportunity to change the boundary of the wilderness area to accommodate something other than howitzers to do control work mid-canyon,” Alta Town Councilman and ski-patrol employee Gus Gilman said. He made that point to the Utah Transportation Commission at a meeting last month, seeking the panel’s support in safeguarding the state road that it governs.
Pollard is not sure a boundary shift is politically feasible, but maybe an exemption to allow avalanche blasters in the wilderness is workable. Both town officials said it will take years to form a consensus.
The time to start is now, though, because Alta is running out of shells available for the Korean War-era guns that now shower the upper canyon’s slopes each winter. The howitzers fired by Utah Department of Transportation crews in the mid-canyon are newer and ammo is no issue, although officials say the Army is hinting that it won’t loan them forever.
“They seem to be strongly encouraging us to find alternatives,” said Liam Fitzgerald, UDOT’s avalanche-safety coordinator for the area.
Besides land classification, though, there also are upfront costs. UDOT has installed Gazexes in some chutes outside the wilderness, Fitzgerald said, and they run $180,000 apiece. It’s a long-term investment to offset the $100 each artillery shell costs. The agency fires 500 rounds per winter in Little Cottonwood.
That’s one reason Gilman was reminding transportation commissioners that this is on the horizon, he said. When the time comes, it likely will take millions of local, state and federal dollars to pay for the program.
There is one option that doesn’t require any structural changes: mass transit. The Utah Transit Authority already operates popular ski buses into the canyon, and getting thousands more aboard would reduce the area’s hazard rating by minimizing the chance for a slide to hit a vehicle.
An avalanche-options study completed for the ski areas, the town and the transportation and transit agencies found that private vehicles averaged about 5,500 a day through the canyon over the previous decade. Buses cut that traffic by 20 percent.
Environmentalists who prefer the transit option concede that some tinkering with wilderness to protect cars on the road might make sense. Save Our Canyons prefers the idea of allowing Gazexes inside wilderness rather than moving the boundary up to the ridgeline, executive director Carl Fisher said, but negotiations are just starting.
“It’s a fairly urban wilderness and a heavily used area,” Fisher said, acknowledging the rationale for modern slide prevention there. Gazexes make more sense, he said, than an idea floated a few years ago to cross Little Cottonwood Creek and build the road into the riparian zone ” and wilderness ” to its south.
Still, Fisher covers his response to the wilderness-tweaking idea with caution.
“We would definitely need to know some of the finer details before continuing in a process that could reduce the amount of wilderness in the central Wasatch,” he said. “That might be an instance where we would potentially be supportive of looking at an amendment to the wilderness bill.”
In the meantime, UDOT’s Fitzgerald assures motorists and skiers, the current shelling operation remains effective and safe, especially when compared with the unchecked hazards of Utah’s bountiful snowfall.
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