Summit Daily editorial: Hold Colorado’s ski industry accountable on death, injury data
April 20, 2017
Colorado's most popular ski resorts are carved out of our public lands. Breckenridge, Keystone and Vail Mountain — to name the big three — all pay millions in fees to the U.S. Forest Service for the privilege of operating highly profitable concessions there. Despite that, these businesses largely operate in secret when it comes to vital public safety information.
It's not hard to understand why the ski industry would want it this way. Vail Resorts, for example, disclosed in a 2016 U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing that publicity of skier deaths or accidents could negatively impact its bottom line.
"An accident or an injury at any of our resorts or at resorts operated by competitors, particularly an accident or injury involving the safety of guests and employees that receives media attention, could negatively impact our brand or reputation, cause loss of consumer confidence in us, reduce visitation at our resorts, and negatively impact our results of operations," Vail wrote in the filing.
Clearly, making information available on skier deaths and accidents is not in the shareholders' best interest. But who's looking out for the skiers?
Yes, resorts are wallpapered with warning signs and safety advisories. Indeed, resorts are full of passionate employees who take visitor safety very seriously. However, the public cannot continue to accept the industry's general assurances on safety improvements.
In truth, we really don't know how effective the resorts' efforts, or lack thereof, have been unless we see the data for ourselves. Are there more injuries or fewer injuries? Is the fatality rate increasing or decreasing? Results matter. As management expert Peter Drucker once wrote, "If you can't measure it, you can't improve it."
For Summit County, this kind of transparency is especially crucial. The county, home to four resorts, accounts for more than 40 percent of the state's skier deaths over the past 10 years. An April 8 accident at Breckenridge Ski Resort led to the 13th ski-related fatality at a Colorado resort so far this season and the fifth to occur in Summit. That makes this season the deadliest since 2011-12, when a record 21 people died while skiing or riding in the state.
There is a human toll to Colorado's $5 billion ski industry. We can no longer accept a culture that seeks to minimize that fact.
"What we have right now is very bad public policy," ski safety activist Dr. Dan Gregorie recently told the Summit Daily. "It's strongly weighted toward resorts and protecting them from liability, and not preventing the public from accidents and injury. They should provide the information to the public so they can make a judgment about how safe or relatively safe one resort is compared to another."
We agree with Gregorie. The resorts must begin releasing data on skier deaths and injuries — and the Forest Service can make them do it. The public disclosure of skier safety data should be included in the federal agency's permitting process. Other industries are subject to this kind of accountability. Why not one that has long prospered on public land?
Last week, the Summit Daily published "Whiteout," a three-part series exploring the systemic lack of transparency surrounding accidental ski deaths.
Using coroner's office documents across 16 counties, we were able to piece together a database of 137 skier deaths over the past 10 years. The information shines new light on the nature of these tragedies. However, we still have little insight into how many skiers are injured at resorts. Statistics on the prevalence of catastrophic injuries, including broken backs, necks and spines, are largely kept hidden from public view. It's time for the Forest Service and the resorts to step up, end this culture of concealment and take public safety seriously.
The Summit Daily editorial board consists of editor Ben Trollinger, publisher Meg Boyer, a reporter and three citizen members: Ken Gansmann, Tamara Drangstveit and Rick Hague.