MONTPELIER -- A wooded glade deep in trackless snow is sometimes too much for skiers to resist, and Vermont lawmakers appear likely to leave it that way for now.
A recent spate of skiers going past warning signs, sometimes ducking under cables meant to block them, and then needing to be rescued after they get lost in the backcountry, had lawmakers briefly considering a bill to impose a $500 fine for such behavior.
But after hearing from ski industry and law enforcement officials alike on Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee decided to shelve the idea, at least for this year.
"If we start criminalizing what we all think is dumb, we’d have an endless avalanche of legislation," said Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia.
Backcountry ski enthusiasts told the committee they didn’t want to lump together those who enjoy the sport responsibly with people who take foolish risks.
"Backcountry skiing is really a jewel in the crown of Vermont," said David Goodman, author of the Appalachian Mountain Club book, "Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast." If people approach the sport with the right gear and a good sense of where they’re going, the result is often a spectacular winter day, Goodman said.
Washington state has a law making it a misdemeanor when a skier or snowboarder heads into territory marked by signs as forbidden. In Colorado, resorts make their own rules.
Vermont has a law allowing rescue agencies and resorts to bill skiers who get lost after ignoring posted warnings. But even that appeared to give Capt. Robert Evans of the Vermont State Police pause. Evans’ duties include overseeing state police rescue operations.
The threat of fines or paying rescue costs might cause someone to try to find his or her own way out and put off calling for help until after dark, when temperatures are dropping and rescue operations become tougher. Evans said he’d much rather police get the call earlier than later.
"If there’s anything that keeps them from doing that it’s problematic for us," he said.
Even the principal sponsor of the bill, Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, said he wasn’t "wedded to the idea."
Mullin said he filed the legislation after hearing the frustration of officials at the Killington ski area at the number of skiers who required rescue after skiing out of bounds recently. The area is in Mullin’s district.
Evans and Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn said Vermont State Police had participated 15 times -- nearly all of them in the week between Christmas and New Year’s, when Vermont saw heavy snow and big crowds at resorts. Fifty people were rescued in those incidents, they said.
Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington and chairman of the committee, initially appeared sympathetic to the idea of a fine, but said later there didn’t seem to be sufficient interest among committee members. Sears said the approach is likely to be "wait a year and sit on the bill."