Avalanche News - 2006
Backcountry shelling a perfect piece of pork
The Missoulian, Missoula MT - Thursday Octber 12, 2006
Backcountry avalanche bombs.
Paid for by taxpayers for the benefit of railroad companies enjoying record profits.
No matter the spelling, it's still pork and that's still government waste.
We're talking, of course, about legislation passed by the U.S. Senate seeking to take as much as $75 million from National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service budgets and give it to “avalanche artillery users.” In our own Glacier National Park, howitzers would shell would-be avalanches perched above Burlington Northern Santa Fe's tracks, presumably sending the snow downhill without endangering passing freight trains.
The larger goal - protecting life and property from potentially deadly avalanches - is a worthy one. Western Montanans know well the terrible risks posed by backcountry snow slides.
The problem, though, is the notion that somehow the federal government should foot the bill for reducing a long-recognized danger of doing business along remote rail corridors. The problem is that the numbers just don't add up.
At hearings in Washington, D.C., this past summer, Forest Service and Park Service officials said they simply don't have the funds available to spend on avalanche control. Already, the national parks show an $800 million budget shortfall - the results of which are noticeable to anyone who visits heavily used parks like Glacier, Yellowstone and Yosemite. And the Forest Service has thousands of miles of backcountry roads in need of repair - and thousands more acres of burned forests in need of reforestation and rehabilitation.
Meanwhile, railroads report record profits. Burlington Northern Santa Fe's 2005 annual report showed revenues of $13 billion and a 73 percent increase in operating income. Yet BNSF refuses to rebuild its effective, but antiquated, system of snow sheds - or roofs over the rails - that protect some of its tracks beneath Glacier National Park. The issue, a company spokesman said recently, is cost.
In fact, the nation's top avalanche control experts can't understand the insistence on backcounty shelling. Don Bachman, president of Colorado's Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, told Congress that snow sheds are “clearly the most effective and environmentally preferred mitigation of this hazard.” Tell the railroads, he said, to build more snow sheds - and to fix the ones they've left untended since the 1920s.
With Congress adjourned for electioneering and other, higher priorities sure to take center stage during the post-election session, government-financed snow shelling isn't likely to gain House approval this year. But Burlington Northern Santa Fe still wants Glacier Park to approve the use of howitzers above its tracks, and an environmental impact statement is due out later this month.
Critics of the proposal are already firing off verbal rounds. Why won't the railroad rebuild and enhance its system of snow sheds? What damage might backcountry shelling do to animals, including grizzly bears, that den on the same mountainside? And what of BNSF's dismal behavior last winter?
This time last year, Glacier National Park gave the railroad permission to trigger avalanches with explosives in an “emergency avalanche situation.” An emergency never materialized, but BNSF fired shells onto the mountainsides anyway, triggering at least one snow slide that was deflected from its tracks by - you guessed it - a snow shed. Glacier Superintendent Mick Holm complained that the railroad had misused its permit, that there had been no emergency. It was, of course, too late. The shots had already been fired.
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