Four full-time U.S. Forest Service snow rangers who are responsible for monitoring avalanche danger in the White Mountains have been working through the government shutdown but haven’t been paid in the past three weeks.

Backcountry skiers headed to the national forests in the Mount Washington region rely on the daily avalanche reports posted by these rangers to know where they can ski safely. The rangers are also part of the network of first responders who attempt to rescue people trapped by avalanches.

“Having adequate information so that you can make good, safe decisions about hiking into the ravines is critical,” said Chris Carleton, a backcountry skier and owner of Allspeed Cyclery & Snow in Portland. “Having weeks’ worth of data is essential to know what could be deep in the snow pack. … That information is in the avalanche reports on the website. If those reports stop, that’s a big problem. Some people could potentially make a bad decision about going there. It’s a roll of the dice without it.”

Mount Washington, the tallest mountain in New England at nearly 6,300 feet, is the site of severe winter weather and has the highest recorded wind speed in the world: 231 miles per hour on April 12, 1934. The area experiences 15 to 20 avalanches a year in ravines that are visited by backcountry skiers and ice climbers.

Since 1970, avalanches on Mount Washington have caused 15 fatalities, an average of one every three years, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The last avalanche fatality was in 2013. In 2000, a Maine man died in an avalanche in the gully called the Gulf of Slides.

Frank Carus, director of the Avalanche Center in the White Mountain National Forest, said he and three other snow rangers have been expected to work despite the partial government shutdown because their jobs are deemed “a necessity.” But they have been paid only once, on Dec. 28, since the shutdown began Dec. 22. Normally, they are paid every two weeks, so under normal circumstances they would have gotten a paycheck on Jan. 11.

Carus said he expects to be paid next Friday for one of the previous four weeks, but not through the normal channels. His paycheck will instead come from a local fund raised by the White Mountain National Forest from parking passes, called the Federal Recreational Enhancement Act fund. The money in that fund is normally used to pay for projects in the national forest such as trail work, new picnic tables and signs. The federal government will reimburse the fund for the rangers’ salaries when the shutdown ends, Carus said.

“These shutdowns are a trying time to get through,” Carus said. “When you work for the government, you do it because either you have a strong sense of mission or you feel it’s stable work. Then when it doesn’t work and you’re not getting paid, it doesn’t feel like stable employment. You feel undervalued. It’s demoralizing.”


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