Explosives Law Hampering Avalanche Control at Ski Resorts

Explosives Law Hampering Avalanche Control at Ski Resorts

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- A homeland security provision designed to keep explosives out of the hands of terrorists is tying the hands of some ski resorts that use seasonal workers from other countries to blast jutting snow and ice to prevent avalanches.

"It's frustrating from our standpoint because we know these people. These people have been doing this for years," said Jeff Walters, vice president of mountain operations at Kirkwood Ski Resort in California, where one-fifth of the avalanche control workers are from abroad. "In my mind they're no threat to anybody's security. They're a help to any skier that comes to the resort."

Under changes that took effect Friday, nonresident aliens are no longer allowed to handle explosives on the job. Other provisions kick in May 24 requiring background checks and permits for any employee using explosives.

When the provision passed Congress last year, it was meant to keep explosives out of the hands of terrorists. Many of the Sept. 11 hijackers, for example, were nonresident aliens.

But Western ski resorts that frequently bring in ski patrol and blasting experts through exchange programs with France and from recruiting in Australia and New Zealand are now having to do without some of their most experienced avalanche crew members.

For example, Todd Rudhall, a Kirkwood ski patrol foreman from New Zealand, has worked 19 winters over the past decade, 16 with explosives. He spends a winter in New Zealand, then chases the snow north to resorts in the United States. He is licensed by the New Zealand government and California, but thought he might lose his job when he first heard about the changes.

"The way it stands at the moment, we're not permitted to handle the explosives," he said. "We're working on getting special permission to actually continue with our work."

The law permits the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms to issue exemptions, but Rudhall said it has been difficult finding a New Zealand agency that can offer the needed assurances of his expertise. He is now working with the New Zealand Embassy on the problem.

Avalanches are a serious threat in the steep, rugged mountains in the Rockies and Sierra Nevadas.

Nine people have died in avalanches in the United States this winter and 35 died last year, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. On average, 27 people have been killed in each of the last 10 winters, nearly all of them in the West, including Alaska.

As a precaution, resorts dispatch ski patrollers, generally in pairs, who toss sticks of dynamite or other charges to dislodge snow and ice in slide-prone areas.

Safety officials at several resorts said skier safety will not be compromised.

"By limiting these people from being able to carry explosives or be able to lead routes it puts more of a burden on the rest of us," said Walters. Foreign workers can still be part of the team, even if they can't handle explosives.

Snowbird Ski Resort in Utah has one avalanche-control worker from abroad, said Paul Garske. The resort will seek a waiver and the restrictions should not be a major hindrance, nor should the background checks that take effect later this year, since the ATF will have time before the next ski season, Garske said.

Generally, the legislation is supported by the ski industry, said Larry Heywood, chairman of the National Ski Areas Association's explosives committee, but he questions if ATF is braced for the changes.

"My biggest concern with the new regulation isn't anything to do with getting our people passed. If we hire the wrong people we shouldn't be doing that," said Heywood, who is also mountain operations manager at Alpine Meadows in California. "It's more the red tape and if they're prepared for the onslaught of paper this new regulation is going to create."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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