There is a new avalanche center in Montana's Flathead Valley. The Flathead Avalanche Center is not the first of its kind in the small community. Its predecessor, the Glacier Country Avalanche Center, opened its doors in 1995 and closed them 17 years later, after ideological conflict and fallout from an ill-timed administrative blunder led to its closure in 2012. But new group has found a way to serve backcountry skiers in the Flathead Valley with regular avalanche reports once again.
Most avalanche centers in the United States, including the Flathead Avalanche Center, are the result of a partnership between the Forest Service and a nonprofit group, and operations are dependent on a smooth relationship. The partners each contribute to the center's operating costs—the Forest Service employs government staff as avalanche specialists and the friends group beats the fundraising drum to develop infrastructure and educational outreach. At small avalanche centers, this relationship can be delicate, strained by resource scarcity. This weakness is inherent to the business model; it's something that the leaders of other centers struggle with, too. This winter, the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center in California will operate without its former partner, the Inyo National Forest, after terminating a fraught partnership.
Ideological conflict and fallout from an ill-timed administrative blunder led to the closure of the original center in 2012. But a new group has found a way to serve backcountry skiers.
"The federal budget seems to keep tightening and tightening, and programs like avalanche centers tend to fall off the radar screen," says Peter Nelson, executive director of Friends of Tuckerman Ravine in New Hampshire. After Alaskan U.S. Representative Don Young noticed small centers struggling, he repeatedly but unsuccessfully petitioned the Secretary of Agriculture to earmark $4 million per fiscal year for avalanche prevention. Though Congress failed to acknowledge the importance of avalanche centers, skiers know how much they matter. According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, an average of 27 people die annually in slides in the United States. That's why after the Flathead National Forest shuttered Glacier Country Avalanche Center in 2012, a new generation of skiers and Forest Service employees came together to rebuild with a renewed vision of progress.
"[The former avalanche center] was a building block for us," says Erich Peitzsch, director of the new Flathead Avalanche Center. "It wasn't a failure." The old battles and missteps are now lessons learned, and they are part of the Flathead Avalanche Center's strong foundation. But to fully understand those lessons and how they will serve the new center, we must go back to the beginning.
Flathead National Forest employees began issuing one avalanche advisory per week in the 1970s, but the organization didn't bump into funding troubles until the early 1990s, when the forest's avalanche forecaster, Stan Bones, realized he needed more than the $20,000 annual federal allotment to produce the weekly advisory.
Bones thought a local nonprofit organization could raise supplementary funds, so he reached out to his friend, Don Scharfe, a leader in the backcountry skiing community and owner of Rocky Mountain Outfitter, the valley's quintessential outdoors store. Scharfe loved the idea. Local support grew quickly, and a handful of skiers jumped on board. In September 1995, the men branded the Forest Service's avalanche forecast department as the Glacier County Avalanche Center, then established the nonprofit Glacier Country Avalanche Center, Inc.
"The first five years were really, really fun. I loved every part of it," says Scharfe. "The ski community really got behind [Glacier Country Avalanche Center]. The fundraising was very good, and people saw the need."
"The idea was to modernize," says Reardon, "and do what the other centers were doing. People wanted more…and the Forest Service felt like things were fine."
With the extra resources, the center could issue two advisories a week, first by voicemail recording, and later, email and a website—doubling the information available. By March 1999, the nonprofit raised enough to provide the Forest Service with the funds to hire a part-time winter forecaster at the center. They chose Blase Reardon, a forecaster who had previously worked with the Friends of the Utah Avalanche Center and who was involved with the friends group since its inception. With his experience at the bigger organization in Utah, Reardon harbored grand dreams for Glacier, like daily advisories.
"The idea was to modernize," says Reardon, "and do what the other centers were doing. People wanted more…and the Forest Service felt like things were fine." Administrators thought weekly advisories were sufficient.
Even with the nonprofit's support, the Forest Service faced fiscal limitations and the avalanche center was low on the priority list. There weren't even enough funds to pay Bones a full salary—he also had federal duties as a civil engineer. Discord grew between the old guard and the new. "Stan didn't have the same vision that Blase had," says Sharfe. "He was a little older and had his own ideas. Blase was this new guy coming in looking at other forecast centers and had new ideas." Friction within the center transferred to the community. The Forest Service balked at the cost of growth, but local skiers felt empowered by the progress they'd made with the nonprofit and wanted the center to keep evolving.
In the fall of 2000, then Flathead Forest Supervisor Cathy Barbouletos received a budget cut and decided she wouldn't hire any seasonal employees that fiscal year. Thinking only of summer trails crews, she forgot that Reardon already had a contract for the upcoming winter. After the oversight was pointed out, along with the fact that avalanche center's nonprofit was bankrolling his salary, Barbouletos remained firm. Reardon's winter forecasting position vanished. To keep up with the twice-weekly services, Barbouletos transferred a full-time silviculturist, who lacked a snow science background, to the avalanche center.
This blow soured the center's relationship with local skiers. Scharfe and the other volunteers grew disinclined to fundraise if the Forest Service wasn’t dedicated to promoting the quality of its center. Goodwill waned and the nonprofit's board decided to curb their financial support of GCAC. Tensions grew until the forecasters stopped attending meetings with the nonprofit, though they continued producing bi-weekly advisories. "Stan persevered for years, doing what he did—a great job—under lots of criticism on a regular basis," says Ted Steiner, who served as the nonprofit's director from 2001 to 2005.
"Things went south," says Scharfe. "People's feelings were hurt, and passions were burned." Momentum slowed almost to a gridlock and volunteers gave up on their vision for a robust local avalanche center. Then, in 2010, GCAC fell under the purview of Becky Smith-Powell, a skier who has worked for the Flathead Forest Service for almost 30 years. She hoped to revive the center.
“When I met them, they were just treading water," says Smith-Powell. "It wasn't productive." In 2012, Smith-Powell cut ties with the nonprofit. She didn't sever the relationship to wipe her hands clean of conflict; she planned to save the center with a fresh start. "I was always committed to having an avalanche center," says Smith-Powell. In time for the 2012-13 season, Smith-Powell and Bones rebranded the federal avalanche forecasting department as the Flathead Avalanche Center. A new group of citizens organized a nonprofit—Friends of the Flathead Avalanche Center—under the leadership of longtime local ski patroller Mike Block.
When Bones retired, Smith-Powell persuaded her superiors to provide the budget for a full-time forecaster, a first for the Flathead. In 2013, she brought on Erich Peitzsch, a USGS physical scientist who worked for Glacier National Park as an avalanche specialist and had taught classes with the old center. "You've got a great avalanche center director in Erich," says Karl Birkeland, the director of the USFS National Avalanche Center. "I think he's going to do a really great job.”
A skilled grant-writer, Smith-Powell also contributed $53,000 to the 2015-16 operating budget of $125,000—a huge jump from the FAC's first budget of $20,000. "All of a sudden, we're going to be a real center," says Smith-Powell. "The Forest administrators only had so much money, and they didn't know how to move off that. I made the push, I said 'let's try' [to get more]…and the community is starting to embrace us. We've listened, we've worked hard to change."
In just a few winters, Smith-Powell proved that the Forest Service's annual allowance didn’t limit the avalanche center. “We're older and more mature, smarter and wiser," says Block. "We had the passion 20 years ago, but we weren't able to get there."
Experienced avalanche specialists Todd Hannan and Mark Dundas joined the FAC this fall as full-time forecasters, and this winter, for the first time in Flathead history, the center will issue public snow advisories every day of the week. "We're excited about going to seven day advisories…there'll be more continuity, there won't be holes in the information," says Hannan.
"I think the future looks very bright," says Scharfe.
The new center's operational design mirrors GCAC's, and there are no guarantees it will work this time. But the Flathead Avalanche Center is fortified by resources and experience. It isn't mired in old baggage. And there's promise in the restored connection between the community, volunteers, and Forest Service. The only guarantee in the avalanche forecasting business is that a small center can weather any challenge on the shoulders of strong relationships between dedicated local backcountry skiers.
Support the Flathead Avalanche Center and find regular advisories published daily at FlatheadAvalanche.com.