As the United States’ longest government shutdown wears on into its fourth week, employees working at 14 Forest Service avalanche centers across the country continue to produce forecasts assessing snowpack stability and hazards associated with winter backcountry travel.
"The Forest Service avalanche centers are open for business and are fully operational," Karl Birkeland, Director of the National Avalanche Center, wrote in an email to POWDER. "This is great because… we are right in the middle of avalanche season."
While the southern border wall stalemate has furloughed scores of public lands employees, closed ranger stations, and limited emergency and rescue operations, a directive from Washington exempted all avalanche forecasting operations from the shutdown.
"Our job is public safety. That makes it an essential service," Mark Staples, Director of the Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center, explains. "The public can count on getting that forecast every day."
However, avalanche forecasters and professional observers continue to work without pay, daily venturing into avalanche country, with all its inherent risks, to collect snowpack and weather data that informs the forecasts, which are typically published early every morning.
"We are not currently getting paid, but we will when they reopen the government," Doug Chabot, Director of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center, says. "For right now, we're just working a normal schedule, normal hours, and we know the pay is delayed until they pass a budget."
"The friends group is our safety net," Chabot continued, referring to non-profit organizations affiliated with USFS avalanche centers that facilitate fundraising and public education. "They're able to step in [with funding], but we're nowhere near that."
USFS avalanche centers have remained operational during past government shutdowns, and this time around, a growing base of winter backcountry recreationalists underscores the need for an unbroken stream of up-to-date information about changing snowpack conditions. Over the last decade, an average of 27 people per season died in avalanches in the United States, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. This winter has already seen two avalanche deaths, both on January 5, in Colorado and Montana.
Over the past four weeks, visitors to public lands have demonstrated flagrant disregard for priceless natural resources—some, for example, ripping around off-road in Joshua Tree National Park on four-wheelers. Avalanche professionals urgently emphasize that the shutdown does not indicate a green-light for skiers or others exploring in avalanche country.
"This time of year—the end of December and beginning of January—this is when we typically start to see more accidents and fatalities," Chabot says. "It's important for people to know we're still in operation. We want to encourage people to get the advisory."
Chabot noted that though there has been no reduction in staff at his center, their forest service office is like a "ghost town," and some "support services in the Forest are gone," including a handful of snow rangers that provide forecasters with supplemental field data. He says there has been no impact to any "mission-critical" resources. Staples also says that there have been some minor administrative challenges related to the shutdown.
Non-essential functions of avalanche centers, potentially including workshops or ongoing research projects, may be impacted by the shutdown, though sources were unable to confirm.
"USDA Forest Service operational status and requirements are evolving as the shutdown continues. The agency is assessing and prioritizing the activities and programs we are able to maintain while in shutdown status. We are unable to speculate on specific impacts while the government shutdown is ongoing and ever-changing. As information becomes available, we are posting it to the following website: https://www.fs.fed.us/shutdown" John Haynes, Forest Service Deputy Director of Public Relations and Communications, wrote in an emailed statement.
Staples says that despite the length of the shutdown, morale amongst his forecasters is still solid.
"We are focused on helping everyone enjoy great powder and come home every day," Staples says. "There’s a reason we all stay in this job so long. It’s extremely gratifying work and we love it."