It appears the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center (ESAC) will scale back its avalanche reporting services for the coming winter.
The Avalanche Center is operated by the Inyo National Forest (INF) in partnership with a local non-profit (Friends of Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center). Each entity puts up approximately half the funding. ESAC Board member Nate Greenberg said the annual budget is about $35,000.
The INF’s Mammoth District Ranger, John Regelbrugge, explained this week that in the face of staffing and fundraising challenges, ESAC would scale back its operations this year and “rethink what we want to be.
“In an ideal world, we’d scale up [our operations],” he said. “The level we’re functioning at … is not satisfactory to some users as it is.”
Currently, ESAC has one temporary employee, Sue Burak, a hydrologist and avalanche specialist who has served as the avalanche forecaster for the past several years.
Unfortunately, said Greenberg, “Scaling back doesn’t look like going forward.”
To do it right, he estimated, the organization’s operating budget should be about $80,000 and fund two staffing positions.
There is a cart and horse aspect to the fundraising, lamented Greenberg. “It’s hard to ask the public for more [money] if they’re not getting the product they want [as is].
“I don’t want to throw our partner under the bus … but how do we grow without better buy-in?”
In general, he said. “More and more people are skiing the backcountry.” By definition, he added, that means there are more and more people out there who also don’t quite know what they’re doing.
This year, ESAC will focus primarily on education and outreach. Regelbrugge said the avalanche advisories would be “less rigorous” and not include danger ratings.
And how does Sue Burak feel about this?
“Sue, from what I’ve heard, is disappointed. It’ll mean less work, and not the work she wants to be doing,” said Greenberg
When The Sheet reached Burak, she confirmed Greenberg’s comment. “I just learned about this at the end of September, and I haven’t heard back as to what the job might be.”
The timing, she said, likely precludes her from seeking similar employment elsewhere.
ESAC’s travails stand in marked contrast to what’s happening at other such centers around the west.
The Sierra Avalanche Center based out of Truckee employs two full-time forecasters and two field observers, according to its website.
It has 20 sponsors who donate at least $3,000 annually, and has an overall budget of approx. $150,000.
Polaris recently donated two new snowmobiles to S.A.C.
In 2012-2013, its website had 83,000 unique visitors. On one particularly snowy day, its recorded avalanche hotline message was accessed 3,000 times.
Its primary fundraising tool are its “Ski Days” events. Again, from the website: “The Board of Directors used its connections in the Tahoe ski industry to partner with nine ski resorts for these Ski Days. Each resort donated between 150 and 500 lift tickets for a specific day. The Board of Directors set a fixed public donation amount necessary to receive a lift ticket for the Ski Day as a thank you gift. $61,000 came from lift ticket sales.”
The Northwest Avalanche Center, based out of Seattle and Sandpoint, Idaho, is an even bigger organization. According to its website, it has a $630,000 annual budget, three professional meteorologists and five professional field observers. It has 25 remote automated weather stations and 47 data collection points. It also offers free basic avalanche classes.
The Sheet attempted to reach Mammoth Lakes Town Councilman John Wentworth, a noted backcountry ski enthusiast, for comment on this story. Alas, Wentworth said he is in Moab, Utah and largely unreachable, but he did text this brief note:
“Tell everybody to go to ESRC (Eastern Sierra Recreation Collaborative) meetings next week – eastsierrarec.org. Therein lies solutions.”