The federal government shutdown could not have come at a worse time when it comes to protecting backcountry recreationists from avalanches.
The U.S. Forest Service employs 50 seasonal avalanche forecasters, including eight in Utah, who are required to report for duty as usual during the shutdown even though there is no guarantee they will get paid. Same goes for the Forest Service’s law enforcement officers.
“They are out there working, ensuring the public is safe and the resources are protected,” said Dave Whittekiend, supervisor of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. “At some point, people are going to run out of money."
Because these professionals play a lifesaving role, they must continue working whether or not they get paid.
Utah’s avalanche forecasters, however, did unexpectedly receive paychecks this week.
“I’m thrilled for that, but I’m not sure why that happened,” Whittekiend said. “They are not supposed to be paid because they are on excepted status.”
Mark Staples, director of the Utah Avalanche Center, made it clear that the forecasters he supervises are just happy to be working during the shutdown, regardless of compensation.
“For us, it is a privilege to come to work," Staples said. “We love what we do.”
What they do is study Utah’s snowpack where people recreate in the mountains, issue forecasts every morning about its stability, post advisories on how to dodge danger, and analyze avalanches after they occur.
Meanwhile, the majority of the Forest Service’s workforce, along with those of other federal land management agencies, remain on furlough during the shutdown that began Dec. 22.
This time of year, Utah mountains are crawling with snowshoers, snowboarders, snowmobilers and skiers who rely on advisories posted by the Utah Avalanche Center, which provides guidance for safe travel through the backcountry, especially in the Central Wasatch.
On Wednesday, the center released an avalanche warning for central and northern Utah, along with southeastern Utah’s La Sal Mountains, as the state braced for the arrival of a powerful storm Thursday.
“Strong winds, coupled with dense heavy snow will overload a weak, pre-existing snowpack, creating tricky and potentially very dangerous backcountry avalanche conditions,” forecaster Craig Gordon wrote in the warning. He expected the avalanche danger to be high by Friday and remain elevated through the weekend, urging people to stay off and out from under slopes steeper than 30 degrees, even though this snow will probably seem stable and ski great.
“It’s going to be an upside-down cake, putting dense snow on top of weak snow. It’s going to feel intoxicatingly good. This is the kind of snow that makes our license plates famous,” he said, warning skiers to exercise extreme discretion in the backcountry.
Meanwhile, 4,000 employees of the National Weather Service, including Utah-based forecasters, were also required to work without compensation until the shutdown ends and Congress passes a bill providing back wages. Like the avalanche forecasters, they are not eligible for sick or vacation leave during the shutdown.
The Utah Avalanche Center is part of the Forest Service’s 15-office National Avalanche Center headquartered in Bozeman, Mont. While many forecasters could be going unpaid, staffers with administrative or support duties are on furlough, according to Dan Kaveney, executive director of the American Avalanche Association.
“These people are exceptionally devoted and passionate about their work. They are willing to go out into the field and write forecasts not knowing when or if they are getting paid,” he said. Some of the avalanche centers’ nonprofit “friends” groups are extending no-interest loans to forecasters to tide them over during the shutdown.
Because the Wasatch Mountains harbor great ski terrain next to a major urban area, the Utah forecasters play a larger role in protecting the public than most other avalanche centers, according to Nate Furman, a University of Utah professor of parks, recreation and tourism.
“So much of the backcountry ski community has become dependent on the forecasts. It’s probably the first part of someone’s safety check," said Furman, who has studied avalanche safety. “If these things become unstaffed or unserviced, those folks are going to make decisions without having reliable information."
Kaveney estimated 1 million people use these federal avalanche advisories.
“Forecasters are extremely important to backcountry safety,” Kaveney said. “Backcountry use has increased dramatically, and fatalities have not. A lot of that has to do with the forecast products these guys put out and the terrific efforts with outreach and education.”
The Utah forecasters represent a combined 143 years of experience in avalanche work, according to Staples. During the offseason, two work as national park rangers. The others include a climbing guide, a Westminster College professor, even a cherry farmer. Staples and another forecaster fight wildfires.
Federal dollars cover a relatively small part of the Utah center’s budget. According to its 2018 annual report, 15 percent of its nearly $1 million budget comes from the Forest Service. Private and state sources cover the rest. About half that budget underwrites educational programs that 5,345 people participated in last year.
The center also documented 146 unintentionally human-triggered slides, which caught 39 people, burying 16 in the 2017-18 season. In the recent past, Utah avalanches killed four or five backcountry travelers a year, but no one has died in the past two winters.
“We are proud as can be of that,” Whittekiend said. “They know they are having an impact.”
Since the shutdown began, avalanches have killed four people in the West’s national forests. Utah’s last fatality occurred nearly three years ago, when a backcountry skier was buried after triggering a slide on the Park City divide with Mill Creek Canyon.
Correction • Jan. 17, 11:45 a.m.: This story has been updated to reflect new information that the Utah-based avalanche forecasters have received paychecks. A previous version misstated that fact.