Opinion | Kevin Fixler: It’s time for transparency at Colorado ski resorts
A dozen skiers and snowmobilers died in avalanches in Colorado this winter, which sadly matched a state record set in 1993.
The public has access to such data because it is closely tracked by a state agency called the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. The statistics are used for a variety of purposes, including making forecasts, reviewing trends and promoting education and safety in the increasingly popular backcountry.
Even more people, an average of 13 each year, died while skiing or snowboarding inbounds at Colorado’s ski resorts over a decadelong period in the 2010s. The single-season total reached a high of 22 fatalities during the 2011-12 season.
But we know these numbers only because the Summit Daily News built a database a few years ago using coroners’ records obtained through the Colorado Open Records Act. However, we still don’t fully understand how the state’s deadliest seasons stack up against one another because the industry and the state’s resorts are not required to divulge fatality statistics.
These lessons, unfortunately, became clear to me during my time as the public lands reporter at the Summit Daily. Each winter, we were frustrated by the limited flow of information from the region’s ski areas regarding safety, major injuries and deaths. That led us to pursue “Whiteout,” an in-depth investigation into how and why the industry closely guards such data.
For example, it wasn’t uncommon for someone’s death on the slopes to go completely unreported for months, if publicly revealed at all. The resorts’ lack of transparency forced us to go to each county’s coroner, paying research and retrieval fees, to acquire data about incidents at resorts — the majority of which primarily operate through leases on public lands, including the White River National Forest in Summit and Eagle counties.
“We’re talking about losses of life here, and talking about serious life-altering injuries,” said Michael Roberts, longtime reporter at Denver Westword, who has tracked the subject for more than a decade. “These are things that should be shared publicly, particularly for the industry that is the trademark of Colorado.”
A bill introduced in the state Legislature could finally make that a reality, but it faces its own uphill climb. Senate Bill 184 comes before the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday and must win a simple majority vote from the five-member panel to move forward. And with the ski industry in Colorado each year accounting for an estimated $5 billion in economic impact, it’s set up as both a powerful and well-funded lobby.
Supporters call the bill a commonsense law and a matter of government transparency. Although Democratic Gov. Jared Polis has yet to take a formal position, he signaled while a U.S. congressman his support for such a concept in a 2017 statement issued by his office to Westword.
“I think improving reporting requirements and transparency in the leases under which operators use our public land including White River National Forest can help increase consumer confidence and encourage safety,” Polis’ statement read. “People should be able to look at basic safety data when they are deciding where to ski.”
And yet, the bill is openly opposed by the state’s ski industry trade association, Colorado Ski Country USA, and its 22 member resorts, which do not include Vail Resorts properties. “We’ve seen this effort fail in other states, and we expect it to fail here,” the trade association said in a statement to The Denver Post.
The bill — which is co-sponsored by Sen. Tammy Story, D-Golden, and Sen. Jessie Danielson, D-Wheat Ridge — currently lacks a House sponsor. Elected officials in Summit and Eagle counties — including Rep. Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, and Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, the agriculture committee chair — have repeatedly accepted campaign contributions from Vail Resorts and Colorado Ski Country USA.
“I have concerns about the bill,” Donovan said in a brief phone interview. “I feel like I understand some of the goals that the bill’s sponsors are trying to achieve, but I’m just not confident this bill is the pathway toward those goals.”
Donovan declined to suggest alternatives and did not respond to requests for a follow-up interview. McCluskie texted Wednesday that she was on the House floor and unavailable for comment.
Despite the challenges, Danielson — the only member of the Senate agriculture committee to not have accepted large campaign contributions over the past decade from the ski industry — said she is hopeful the bill will make it to Polis’ desk.
“Unless we pass a bill like this, this type of thing remains hidden and secret to the public,” Danielson said. “I think that all of the resorts are opposed, and that makes me wonder a little bit what it is that they’re hiding?”
Kevin Fixler is a freelance journalist based in Boise, Idaho. A version of this guest commentary was previously published by the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.
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