July 26, 2006
Avalanche Bills HR 2039 and SR 225Comments on HR 2039 and SR 225 (Text of Bill)
These two identical bills would provide for federal funding in the areas of avalanche control and safety. Senator Stevens (R-AK) has introduced SR 225 in the last congress as well as early in this congress, and given that it repeatedly stalled Rep. Young (R-AK) introduced an identical bill in the house early in this congress. The original bill would have appropriated $15 million per year for 5 years. After sitting in the House Resources Committee for over a year Rep. Young asked the proponents of the bill to redraft a new proposal at a more realistic level. The current draft requests a total of over $14 million spread over 5 years.
The basic areas for which funds would be allocated are artillery refurbishment, management and the development of alternatives to artillery, mass disaster prevention, education of high-risk groups, and data management.
An overview of my thoughts and opinions on each of these areas is presented here. I do not support this bill. I feel there may be some need for artillery management, but I also believe that policy barriers are discouraging the use of alternatives. Any bill of this nature should require, or be contingent upon, changes to current agency policies. I also believe existing programs could be used more effectively to promote new alternatives.
I am not familiar with the details of managing the artillery used for avalanche control, but I believe that most other countries rely more on other methods and that the US could significantly reduce its reliance on military artillery. This could be done by utilizing existing programs for the development of new alternatives and by changing polices which stifle innovation and the application of viable existing alternatives. A certain amount of artillery use will probably always be required, and the part of the proposal specifically for managing and refurbishing artillery is the one section I believe may have some merit.
In order to develop alternatives I believe the existing SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) program offers the best solution. Each cabinet level department is required to participate by setting aside a certain percentage of their funding (or research funding) for this program. Each year topics of applied research that are important to the department are chosen and a request for proposals is prepared. Proposals come from small businesses in conjunction with university researchers. Requests for proposals on artillery alternatives would fit under the Departments of Agriculture, Interior, and Homeland Security. It's simply a matter of one of these departments choosing to focus on this one year. The SBIR approach uses an existing program which is already funded, and it solicits detailed proposals. This seems to me to be much better than providing new funding to a government-run committee with no specific research/development plan, goal, or capability.
There are a number of existing alternatives for avalanche control which are more widely used in other countries. While there are numerous locations where one or another of these alternatives would work well here in the US it is generally necessary to obtain permission from the Forest Service to do anything anywhere on their lands. This process is so onerous that it provides a disincentive to any effort to move away from artillery. There is one case where a community is threatened but could be provided by a series of dams and berms just above the homes on Forest Service land. A civil engineer living in the community sent a letter to the Forest Service indicating that he was interested in providing the necessary engineering work under the advising of two avalanche engineers in the private sector. Despite the fact that this is on the very edge of public land adjacent to private property and a community, and the fact that no support (financial or otherwise) was being requested from the agency, the response he eventually received made it clear that any consideration of this at all was out of the question. So the "mass disaster" potential (to the extent such a term honestly applies to avalanches) remains. This is just one of many examples.
I can think of four alternate technologies at this time. One is in use in a few places, after lengthy permitting processes. A second is not in use, and probably never will be, due to permitting (which has caused the company to give up all marketing efforts in the US). A third is just now becoming available, but has met with a cool response here despite great interest and trial run success in Europe. The fourth is under development but lacks any funding or promising market in the US and therefore is progressing slowly.
It is my opinion that any funding appropriation related to avalanche control should be contingent upon policy changes which would allow and encourage artillery alternatives to be used and developed. American businesses and communities have a long history of solving problems with new and innovative ideas when the need arises and unnecessary barriers are not imposed.
The mention of "mass disaster potential" in this bill should not be of relevance at a federal level. There are few places in this country where a single avalanche has the potential for mass destruction. Juneau is the primary problem location. The community mentioned in a previous paragraph is in California and has perhaps a dozen non-reinforced homes built in a single run-out zone. Many existing homes are not occupied in winter, and new ones are required to be reinforced. The solution to such problems lies in local zoning and building requirements, and this has been done successfully at the county and city level in a number of areas. Including Sun Valley, Idaho, several Colorado jurisdictions, the Town of Alta and (more recently) Salt Lake County in Utah, and at least four counties in California. As far as identifying and quantifying such "mass disaster" potential, there are at least four engineers in the US who could probably prepare such a report at very low cost based on their current familiarity with the various locations and problems. All have professional degrees and relevant experience and work in the private sector. There may also be others. Other than a few isolated communities most risk of structural damage is limited in potential to one or two buildings in a single avalanche event. Comparisons of avalanches to hurricanes as mass disasters are misguided as there is very little similarity in any respect.
Funding is requested for educating "at-risk" populations. Snowmobilers are cited as an example but it is not clear whether they would be the sole, or even primary, target. Nor is it clear what would be accomplished and how. While I believe in avalanche education as a preventative measure I do not feel that this is the responsibility of federal government. There is already a vibrant private sector in avalanche education, and basic safety classes can be taken in most regions for a very small cost. Especially in comparison to the cost of a snowmobile, new skis, a new snowboard, etc. Those of us choosing to go into uncontrolled backcountry need to take personal responsibility for educating ourselves. There are also policy problems in this arena which limit the number of course providers in any given area, preventing the kind of competitive environment which spurs improvements and lowers costs. Once again I feel that the policies creating such barriers need to be changed before throwing money at the issue with these barriers in place.
The final area is data management. It's not clear what needs to be done, for whom, or why. A certain segment of the avalanche community in the US has always been envious of the leadership of Canada in this area. Canada is a leader in data management and exchange because of their large heli-skiing industry, and the methods developed there have been funded primarily by industry and not government. In the US it has proven difficult to facilitate this since downhill ski areas don't have as much need for data from anywhere beyond the other resorts in the immediate area. I believe the issues of data management can be addressed with minimal federal funding through two channels. First of all the US can adopt the various standards and methods being developed in Canada. I believe a fair amount of it is "open-source", such as various xml schemas. Second, there are a number of privately run GIS based websites beginning to offer avalanche maps via the internet. These are in their early stages, but they are progressing and it would be much more cost effective to encourage these efforts than to duplicate them.
Finally there is the issue of grants. The original bill calls for an avalanche committee to issue grants to organizations for projects, presumably in education but perhaps for data management development also. The majority of avalanche related non-profit organizations in the US are "Friends of the Forest Service" groups raising salary money for Forest Service employees. If grants are to be awarded at all it should be specified that these groups are ineligible. If the intent is to fund the Forest Service avalanche centers it would be better to do that directly so that money is not wasted managing a circular funding scheme. A lot of the public support that has been generated has resulted from the implication that existing forest service avalanche centers will be better funded, yet there are no specifics making that clear. Comments in prior Senate hearings from top officials in both the Forest Service and the Park Service suggested that the grants provision be removed entirely, indicating that the agencies themselves do not really want to be involved in this.
Before I could support a bill such as those currently proposed I would have to see policy changes which allow and encourage new and innovative ideas for avalanche control work and a competitive environment for private sector education efforts. I would also have to see more specifics of what the bill would accomplish and how. I'm not convinced that the landscape will really be much different five years and $15 million dollars from now.
Note that I do support some of the goals this bill appears to address, and I've spent much of my life donating my time to some of them. However, I feel that all of those goals can be better achieved through other means outside of federal government.
Posted 8 years, 4 months ago on July 26, 2006
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