San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters brought the idea to the County Commissioners for discussion Wednesday – two days after longtime Telluride resident Nate Soules was killed in a Bear Creek avalanche. After hearing from Masters, the commissioners agreed to further consider the possible surcharge at the next joint meeting of three local governments – the county and the towns of Telluride and Mountain Village – which will be held on March 12.
To put a surcharge on a Telluride Ski Area lift ticket, according to Commissioner Art Goodtimes, the county would rely upon a 1991 state law that allows counties to impose a surcharge on ski areas for search and rescue operations. There is a caveat, howeve; Goodtimes said that the county can impose the fee only if either the ski company or the municipality where the point of sale for lift tickets resides (Town of Mountain Village) agree to allow it.
“We have the authority to do it, but there is a technicality,” Goodtimes said in an interview on Thursday. “Either Mountain Village or Telski has to voluntarily accept the fee. We can’t do it without their buy-in. We’ve got to work together on this and that's why we are having the discussion at the next intergovernmental meeting.”
For Masters, imposing something like a 20-cent surcharge would help not only pay for the direct costs of search and rescue missions but the indirect costs as well. Looking at his department’s 2012 search and rescue budget, Masters said the county has allocated $180,000 for all operations for the entire year. Regarding the cost of having rescue equipment available, and a trained staff that is properly equipped and insured, Masters said, one rescue operation can cost anywhere from $30,000-$50,000. And if there are three or more rescues a year? They could easily eat up his entire year’s budget.
“Even if there is no rescue in a particular year, all that stuff has to be done, and we have to be ready,” Masters said. “Thankfully, we have all these volunteers who are willing to work uncompensated. They leave their jobs and come out and help with rescues. They are always standing by, ready to roll.”
Masters had several suggestions regarding how the funds collected through the surcharge could be used.
The money could be used to cover the cost of search and rescue missions. Another option, Masters said, would be to create a staff of ski patrollers specifically for rescues in Bear Creek.
A third option, he said, would be to create a professional ski patrol to patrol not only the ski area, but could provide rescue services in the Bear Creek backcountry as well.
But Masters observed that he would prefer his department not be responsible for any of the three alternatives, although now, given the fact that it is legal for snowriders to Bear Creek, and do so, with somewhere between 150 and 300 trips into Bear Creek every day, during ski season, he’s stuck between a rock and a hard place.
“I don’t want the money; I don’t want the headache,” Masters said. “To duplicate what is already currently available and ready in the ski patrol shack is ridiculous. Why go through all that expense to develop another bureaucracy to solve a problem that could be solved by the Forest Service by extending the ski area boundary to the bottom of Bear Creek? There are a lot of people who don’t know what they are doing or where they are going using the gate. It’s my problem. When people call us, we have to go in and do the best we can.”
Telluride Ski and Golf Co. Chief Executive Officer Dave Riley said on Thursday he would not support of any sort of lift ticket surcharge because the destination tourists coming to Telluride to ski, who would be paying the surcharge, aren’t the skiers and riders dropping into Bear Creek.
“There’s a weak connection between the vast majority of the people who buy lift tickets and those people who go into the backcountry,” Riley said. “It may seem like there’s a lot of people going into the backcountry but it's a small fraction compared to the people who come here and purchase lift tickets. A search and rescue that takes place anywhere out in the wilderness is not necessarily to rescue the same folks who travel here from Chicago for a ski vacation.”
Furthermore, Riley said there are mechanisms already in place to help cover the costs of search and rescues, through the purchase of search and rescue cards, and hunting and fishing licenses.
“What I think needs to happen here is that needs to be promoted more effectively,” Riley said, referring to the rescue cost-recovery mechanisms already in place. “I think from an equity point of view, dinging visitors to pay for services they are not using isn’t justified.”
Masters said he doesn’t blame Riley for not supporting the surcharge, calling it an “accounting headache” but it's a better option than the current rescue infrastructure. Masters went on to emphasize that Bear Creek is unlike many other backcountry ski destinations where enthusiasts spend most of their time hiking up terrain they wish to ski. In Bear Creek, he said, riders are able to do laps in the backcountry with the help of Telski’s lifts.
“This is unlike other ski areas,” Masters said, because “they don’t quite have the same lift-served sidecountry ski experience" made possible by the fact that the Telluride Ski Area is adjacent to Bear Creek.
"Here, it is so easy to leave the ski area boundaries, ski extremely hazardous, dynamic terrain and then get back on the lift. When I say we have 150 to 300 user trips a day in Bear Creek, there aren’t that many people skiing it, but there are a lot of people doing it five times in a day.
“It’s a unique situation up there.”