Avalanche experts seek more money

Posted: Thursday, October 11, 2007

With snow beginning to accumulate on the mountains above town, the Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center is looking for more money before it commits to forecasting Juneau's urban avalanche threat this winter.

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Bill Glude, center director and lead forecaster, hopes the city will come through with the remaining $77,000 to fully fund Juneau's urban avalanche forecast for six months, starting on Nov. 1.

Though Glude seeks more money, he said the city should be commended for proactively funding the program to the level it has.

In June the Juneau Assembly provided $50,000 for the forecasting service and found an additional $10,000 from a grant.

"It's not quite enough," Glude said.

Assembly member Bob Doll said he supports the new funding effort.

"I'm going to do whatever I can to provide funding this season," he said.

Sometime in the coming week, Doll plans to renew the funding effort.

The budgeted money leaves the avalanche center 38 percent funded for a six-month 2007-08 season. The minimum budget the avalanche center needs to fully operate is $156,096, Glude said.

Of the proposed budget, 50 percent goes to overhead and the remaining pays the staff of four. That's $19,512 for each worker over six months, Glude said.

Much of the center's past funding came from Glude's forecasting work with the Kensington Mine, 45 miles north of downtown. Glude said Kensington hired its own full-time forecaster this season.

Glude said on Wednesday his organization would commit to Juneau's full forecast season if the Assembly would commit to seeking the additional funds needed.

"I hope the city will commit and we can start the season," Glude said.

Glude proposed that the Assembly lobby the Alaska Legislature for funds based on a statute that calls for the state to fund avalanche forecasting and education statewide. The program has not been funded since the 1980s, Glude said.

Doll said he doubts anyone outside Juneau would help fund the program.

"If the Legislature ignores a statute, there is no one in the state to challenge them," he said.

With funding for three months secure, some in Juneau think relevant forecasting can begin when the major threat arrives during the last three months of the season. Glude, a nationally recognized expert in the field, said it is essential to monitor the snowpack from the beginning.

"We can't do a shorter season," Glude said.

The avalanche center could not guarantee a forecast without fieldwork done from the first major snowfall of the year. Avalanche forecasting has an established standard of care that, if not followed, could result in legal action.

"Monitoring the whole season is the standard," Glude said.

Assistant Mayor Merrill Sanford said he is willing to look at additional funding, but expects the city to face a shrinking tax base and cut services in coming years.

"We're going to have to start cutting programs, not adding them," Sanford said.

He believes the city contribution of $50,000 shows a strong commitment to the program. If more money is needed, the city should look at all alternatives, he said.

Options include seeking alternate bids for the same service or starting a city forecast office and staffing its own professional team.

Assembly Finance Committee Chairman David Stone said he was a champion for the program in the past.

"It's important," he said.

The question for Stone is at what level can the city provide the service.

"How much is it worth and who is to do it, I don't know," he said.

Before publicly committing to find the additional funds, Stone wants to hear from the city manager, who has put out a request for avalanche forecasting bids.

"We should be able to find partnership with the (Department of Transportation) and the Forest Service," Stone said. "But pulling together is not always easy."

• Contact Greg Skinner at 523-2258 or greg.skinner@juneauempire.com.,

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