National avalanche centre needs national support 

Avalanche Association concerned by lack of commitment from Alberta

The deadliest avalanche season in western Canadian history has resulted in numerous recommendations to make the mountains safer, including the establishment of a National Avalanche Centre.

A national centre would guarantee funding, say supporters, and would make it easier to collect and share all of the avalanche-related information gathered by government agencies and the private sector.

A meeting hosted by the federal government is planned for Calgary in February to discuss the creation of the centre, as well as other recommendations made by a B.C. coroner and a B.C. avalanche review. The meeting will include provincial governments, tourism and recreation industry representatives, and non-profit groups like the Canadian Avalanche Association, National Search and Rescue Secretariat and Alpine Club of Canada that have a vested interest in avalanche safety.

However, before there can be a National Avalanche Centre, proponents of the plan still have a few major stumbling blocks to overcome.

The first is funding. A private consultant developed three scenarios for the centre that would cost between $375,000 and $1.12 million annually. B.C. currently supports the middle proposal with a $625,000 price tag, which would see $250,000 in funding from each of B.C. and Alberta, $250,000 from the federal government, and $125,000 from the private sector, including sponsors and service subscribers.

B.C. already contributes $125,000 to the centre after restoring provincial government funding at the beginning of the 2003-2004 season. The Alberta government doesn’t currently contribute anything to the Canadian Avalanche Association, but spends about $90,000 a year to produce avalanche bulletins in high risk areas like Kananaskis and shares that information with the CAA.

The CAA says that is inadequate, pointing to the number of Albertans currently using the CAA’s avalanche bulletins – 42 per cent of all users – and who regularly visit the backcountry in B.C.

There were 29 avalanche deaths in Canada over the 2002-03 season, including 25 in B.C. and four in Alberta. The yearly average is 15 deaths.

Of the 29 victims of last season, 13 were from Alberta, including seven students who were doing an outdoor education course with their school.

If Alberta doesn’t make a financial commitment then the proposed National Avalanche Centre won’t work, says Evan Manners, the operations manager at the CAA centre in Revelstoke.

"At the very best it would make it more difficult to put in place, and it may even prevent it from happening," said Manners.

"For this to work we need commitments from four funding partners, the federal government, the B.C. government, the Alberta government and the private sector.

"So far we’ve seen industry make a contribution and the B.C. government, so we have only two out of four parties participating, and less than half of the funding we need. We’re still a ways away from making the National Avalanche Centre a possibility."

The CAA will likely become the NAC if the plan goes ahead, although there are options to have the organization run by government or the private sector.

The CAA has high expectations for the Calgary meeting, although they will continue to provide as much service as they can whatever the outcome. That includes working to implement some of the other recommendations to come out of the B.C. avalanche review, a Parks Canada review and a coroner’s recommendations.

Some of the other recommendations include posting avalanche bulletins at trail heads, establishing a national association and certification process for backcountry guides, and increasing education.

"We do everything we can with the resources we have. The principal limiting factor in everything we do has always been money," said Manners.

The CAA’s biggest ally in the battle to create a NAC is the public, which Manners says is more aware of avalanche issues.

"The public is insisting that something drastic needs to be done, and that we need to get on with this. The Olympics are coming up, winter tourism is a good draw, and it’s part of our culture, so get on with it," said Manners.

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