Letter to the editor: Avalanche lawsuit more dangerous than avalanche itself

Gantt Miller
Oakland, California

It is with the backdrop of needed additional backcountry safety and education that the district attorney’s office for Colorado’s 5th Judicial District has decided to try to kill more people.

It is not hyperbole. A lawsuit brought against two snowboarders for reckless endangerment due to the avalanche they triggered about a year ago above Interstate 70 is in fact more dangerous than the avalanche itself.

What makes this lawsuit so deadly is that it threatens to shut down the communication between backcountry enthusiasts and avalanche reporting centers.

Summit County Judge Edward Casias ruled that Colorado Avalanche Information Center Director Ethan Greene and another forecaster would be required to testify as expert witnesses in the trial against the snowboarders who willingly volunteered their videos and information on the avalanche.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser smartly recognized the danger in shutting down this vital line of communication, warning that compelling testimony from an organization that backcountry travelers rely on and trust to share information with “could have an unintended adverse ‘chilling’ impact on the CAIC’s ability to gather important information.” Yeah, ya think?

Bruce Brown, the former district attorney for the 5th Judicial District, doesn’t see it that way. He said, “We charged them with reckless endangerment because it was foreseeable that they were putting other people at risk of serious bodily injury in that they recognized the potential for a slide, and they could obviously see, right below their skis, I-70, where 100,000 cars go by each week.

Perhaps the mountains above I-70 need better signage. There were avalanche mitigation steps taken by the Colorado Department of Transportation, but clearly they didn’t prevent the avalanche that occurred, and there were no cars affected by the slide.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but a punitive approach is definitely not it.

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