TELLURIDE – The seemingly flawless rescue of 28-year-old Placerville resident Eric Zuaro from a massive avalanche he triggered while skiing in Bear Creek last week was the first to operate under a formal search and rescue agreement and protocol being finalized between the San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office and the Telluride Ski and Golf Co.
Although there has been informal cooperation between the Sheriff’s Office and volunteers from the Telluride Ski Patrol in responding to backcountry events for years, it is only now, as Telski looks into expanding its permit area into Bear Creek, that the two entities have sat down to make that cooperation official, said Sheriff Bill Masters.
“Nothing has really changed, it’s just never been formalized,” he said. “It’s probably something that should have been done years ago.”
The agreement was originally to also have included the United States Forest Service, but as of publication it appeared that the federal agency would not take part.
“We support the agreement, but there simply isn't a reason for us to sign it,” Norwood District Ranger Judy Schutza wrote in an email to The Watch.
“The agreement is really between Telski and the San Miguel County Sheriff's Office. The Forest Service is involved because the activities occur on National Forest system lands,” she went on to explain.
Going forward (provided the agreement is signed as it is currently drafted), patrollers who want to volunteer to assist with county search and rescue efforts outside the ski area’s boundaries are supposed to file an application with the Sheriff’s Office requesting appointment to the Search and Rescue Unit.
Then, those who are recognized members of the SAR Unit can respond to rescues when the Sheriff’s Office requests their assistance, or when the Telluride Ski Patrol notifies and obtains authorization from the Sheriff’s Office prior to beginning a rescue operation.
After evaluating the safety needs inside its permit area, Telski has final authority to release its patrollers to participate in rescue operations. However, the draft agreement states that Telski is not to withhold participation without valid justification.
“The sequence of events is such that the ski area needs to release them from work,” said Telski CEO Dave Riley.
Once authorization is in place, the patrol volunteer goes off the clock and is not considered a Telski employee while taking part in an operation.
The concept doesn’t sit right with Masters, who believes that Telski should continue to pay its patrollers for their time when they are participating in SAR operations.
“It seems like the stand up thing to do,” he said.
He is concerned that if loss of income became significant enough, financial circumstances might leave some patrollers with little choice but to withhold their participation.
“I think they’re all a bunch of stand up people, but we’re all trying to make a living too,” he said.
The whole search and rescue issue gained prominence recently as Telski sought and received approval from the USFS for a controversial snow study that would map 1,500 acres Forest Service land in Upper Bear Creek.
The study would serve the dual purposes of helping to increase safety for rescuers responding to events in Bear Creek, and to determine whether the terrain is suitable to include in a ski area expansion.
The pending agreement, which may be terminated by either party with 90 days written notice, is patterned after those already in place in Summit County, Breckenridge and Keystone, according to Riley.
“We felt that was a good model to follow,” he said, disagreeing with Masters’s position on ski patrol compensation during county SAR operations.
“Rescues outside of the ski area are not the ski area’s responsibility,” he said.
Masters takes issue with that stance because he believes that Telski is actively promoting its Bear Creek side country – the unmanaged, avalanche-prone terrain just beyond a ski area’s boundaries and accessed through USFS gates by way of the resort – despite the burden to respond to incidents that occur there being placed squarely upon his shoulders.
“I have no authority to manage it, but I have all of the responsibility,” he said, explaining that state law requires that county sheriffs are responsible for all search and rescue operations within their jurisdictions.
Riley denied Masters’s assertion in a previous interview with The Watch.
“We haven’t purchased any advertising to market Bear Creek,” he said.
If Masters is concerned that ski patrollers will lose income to volunteer for SAR operations, why doesn’t the county just pay them for their time?
The county can’t, or at least it shouldn’t have to, because it is already paying $12,000 for workman’s compensation insurance to cover ski patrol volunteers in case they are injured during an SAR operation – a cost being born by taxpayers throughout San Miguel County, he explained.
“How much more is the pinto bean farmer out in Egnar supposed to pay for this?” he asked, referring to the small town of 129 people (according to the 2000 Census) just shy of the Utah border and far removed from ski resort activities at the east end of the county.
“To tell those people out by the Utah line that they have to pay for search and rescue ops here… I find it difficult to tell them that with a straight face, but that’s what we’re supposed to do.”