On Friday, March 14, Ralph Bloemers, Staff Attorney with the Crag Law Center and I met with Matthew Drake (owner Chairman & CEO of Mount Hood Meadows), Tom Spangler (new General Manager), Brandon Backman (Ski Patrol Manager), Mel Thomney (Head Director of Ski Patrol) and Steve Warila (Mountain Operations) concerning Mt. Hood Meadows'(MHM) plans to expand their avalanche control plan within the Mt. Hood Meadows permit boundary in and slightly above Heather Canyon and beyond.
The key points from the meeting follow:
• MHM is actively pursuing and fast tracking the lease of a Howitzer artillery piece to better and more safely control Heather and upper Heather Canyon. Lease payments are made to the Army to refurbish the weapon and then it is loaned indirectly through the Forest Service. Meadows indicated that they have an option on two decommissioned Howitzers and that they would like to move forward with the application process rather than having to wait 2-3 more years for the lease process to play out.
* MHM would like to build a base structure, approx. minimum of 20′ x 20′ with 10ft. thick walls (more likely 30 x 30) and two stories tall, along the rim of Heather canyon to be able to do control in Super Bowl (below Wy’East face) and up to 9,000 feet of the permit boundary and over to Pea Gravel Ridge in the North.
• MHM proposes to build a foundation structure for the Howitzer at roughly 6,400 ft. along the western edge of Heather Canyon near the top of the run called ‘Pluto.’ The weapon would be housed on the second story.
• The foundation could be poured directly from cement mixing trucks. In order to do this MHM will need to construct a roughly 150-200 yard ‘temporary road’ and drive concrete trucks up a rudimentary permanent road. MHM has also used helicopters to lay footers in the past. MHM seeks to construct this road under Categorical Exclusion or CE which limits environmental analysis.
* MHM would like to have the weapon operational prior to next ski season and they would like to be able to operate it at all hours and all days without restrictions. The weapon can be used in all weather conditions, and light or dark. The weapon can be calibrated so that the azimuth is pre-set and the accuracy of the weapon is far greater than the technology that is currently employed.
• MHM stated that the dud rate of its current technology (an Avalauncher) is between 10-13% whereas the dud rate of a howitzer is under ¼ of 1%. Meadows does attempt to collect all duds, and reported success in so doing for almost all duds.
• MHM’s expanded avalanche control range means that for the first time they might be actively controlling Superbowl up to their permit boundary at 9,000 feet at the Wilderness boundary and at the base of the Wy’east headwall a regular and highly sought after destination for both backcountry skiers and alpinists. The weapon (a Howitzer 105) has a range of over six miles.
In November 2007, citizens first learned of MHM’s interest in using this weapon to ‘peel the onion’ so to speak and more actively control Heather Canyon, Accordion, A Zone, Superbowl and to the permit boundary. Michael Halle of the Surfrider Foundation’s Snowrider Project and Ralph Bloemers of the Crag Law Center asked MHM to be transparent with their plans early on. MHM has indicated its interest in sharing its proposal with the broader public. They are eager to present their plan to other mountain user groups like the Mazamas, Portland Mountain Rescue, the Crag Rats (Cooper Spur Mountain Rescue) and to the broader public.
So far, the key issues that have been identified include:
Will the mountain have to be shut down to climbing when the weapon is being used?
Will the weapon only be used on Superbowl and higher elevations at certain times to avoid conflicts with mountaineers?
What is the error ratio of the weapon and what is the potential for transboundary effects and how far within the boundary will MHM fire?
Is the use of the weapon consistent with past control or a significant expansion of control operations?
Is the use of CE for construction of the temporary road and weapon platform proper?
The Howitzer appears to be a safer and more effective avalanche control tool for MHM patrol and would likely allow MHM customers to experience Heather Canyon more frequently in the winter. The question that remains, however, is how this weapon will affect the mountain environment and the diverse community of mountain users that have climbed Mt. Hood since well before the advent of snow control and ski operations at MHM.
In addition, there have been ongoing discussions about creating openings (gates) at the edge of the MHM permit boundary into White River and up to Wy’East. Will the control operations be used as a springboard to expand these operations? What will the effects of these proposals have on the adjacent Wilderness, Wild & Scenic Rivers and other resources? MHM has reported problems with ticketed users cutting the boundary, as well as conflicts with backcountry users entering the boundary during avalanche control operations. The users that are not respecting the boundaries range from those less educated about the perils of the backcountry to those that know the hazards and are simply using historic and convenient access points.
The proposal to obtain a Howitzer does not address these related access and enforcement issues, however, perhaps this is the time to address these issues as well and think longer-term about what the mountain and its diverse communities of users can support.
For those of you that are interested in this issue and would like to learn about upcoming presentations on this proposal, please contact me directly at: 503.232.8687.
Michael G. Halle
Snowrider Project Portland Coordinator