Halford: Avalanche money isn't high priority

Posted: Monday, April 08, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A proposal to fund an avalanche safety program supported by Gov. Tony Knowles isn't likely to make it through the Legislature, according to Senate President Rick Halford.

Eight people have died in avalanches in Alaska this winter. Four were in areas of Southcentral Alaska that would be monitored by a proposed avalanche warning program.

The $750,000 program would monitor the snow pack in the Anchorage area, Hatcher Pass, the northern part of the Kenai Peninsula, Thompson Pass near Valdez, and the Juneau area. Under the program, avalanche forecasters would also issue slide warnings and teach avalanche awareness.

An avalanche warning program is required by law but since 1986 has not been fully funded by the Legislature. The proposed $2.4 billion budget that passed in the House last month contains no money for the program. It's unlikely the money will be added as the budget moves through the Senate.

''Once you accept responsibility and decide you're going to be out there warning people, you could spend a pretty substantial increase'' beyond the proposed $750,000, Halford, R-Chugiak, told the Anchorage Daily News. ''You're not going to be all the places that there are going to be avalanches and people.''

An avalanche warning program focused on Southcentral Alaska has some merit, Halford said. Not all programs can be funded, however, with the state facing an $800 million budget shortfall this year and bigger budget gaps projected in the future.

''How does (an avalanche warning program) compare with 15 or 20 new (village public safety officers) for communities that can't keep their schools open because they can't maintain order?'' Halford said, referring to unrest among students in the village of Kivalina last month that led to a school shutdown.

Since 1999, when a record 13 people died in avalanches, including six snowmachiners in Turnagain Pass near Anchorage, Knowles has requested money to fund the program. Last year, the administration asked for $350,000. The Legislature granted $50,000.

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