Who is Qualified to Certify Terrain Parks--A Ski Industry Veteran Speaks Out
UPDATE TO BLOG: This week's Blog Patrol is brought to you by John Rice, General Manager, Sierra-at-Tahoe.
In my original Speak Out I made a few assumptions that were factually incorrect, and I would like to apologize to USTPC and founding member Jim McNeil about them. To set the record straight: In my first point, I suggested that USTPC board members have testified in court against resorts. While research and published reports authored by board members have been cited by plaintiff's experts, the USTPC members have not engaged in litigation, and I stand corrected on this point. Following that, my assumption that founding members make part of their living in court was also incorrect. My knowledge that their work has been cited led me to erroneously assume that they were involved in litigation. I believe the current dialogue is healthy and will lead to further discussions that will help move the needle on best terrain park practices for the industry.
In light of the above information, I have amended points 1, 2, 4 and the final paragraph to reflect the information above.
There has been a recent flurry of emails originating from a group called the USTPC (United States Terrain Park Council) that purports to provide an "open, collaborative environment to promote research and education related to resort terrain parks." The organization claims to be able to "inspect and certify" terrain parks at resorts, for a fee. They further claim to be "litigation-neutral" and claim they bar their officers and board members from "voluntary participation in snow sport related litigation." The most recent email they claim to have "compiled the industry best practices into a 2 hour educational seminar." As a ski industry veteran of 35 years, pioneer of terrain park development, general manager of a resort, and expert witness/consultant, I have some very serious concerns about the true purpose of this organization's goals and objectives. Many ski industry stakeholders have similar concerns and believe that this organization needs a closer look. There are five areas that I feel need to be highlighted.
1) Some of the founding members are engineers, and have conducted studies regarding terrain feature design. These studies have been cited by expert witnesses in cases against resorts. Currently, ASTM is studying the proposals to create standards for terrain features. While the science debate will continue, it would be in the best interests of the industry to allow all sides to be heard in a neutral environment like ASTM. There are so many variables involved in terrain park use, it might be premature to accept a single point of view.
2) Many people in the ski industry question the experience of the members of the USTPC. It would be prudent for the organization to present their years of experience in design, construction and maintenance of terrain parks. My personal experience in this area is that everyone who has ever built a jump or jumped is an expert, or claims to be one. The years of on-hill experience, coupled with their background and understanding of the issues relative to terrain park use is key to establishing credibility. For a group to be able to "certify" a jump or park, it would be important to establish their credibility and experience prior to selling certification services.
3) The organization claims to be able to inspect and then certify terrain parks. While it is unknown what science the USTPC relies on to certify jumps through their SMART PARKS program, two of their board members have written position papers on what they would consider to be safe jump design. The science debate that currently exists between engineers centers on the ballistic physics model, and the effects of the human component on the outcome of a jump. Both sides have proposed theories supporting their position and do not agree with each other. There are hundreds of variables in winter sports, human variables and those of nature that skew ballistic models. When the human and environmental variables are ignored, engineering principles can be applied to predict outcomes. Skiing and riding, and even more so jumping, involves constant interaction of the user with the terrain, weather, gear and conditions. You cannot engineer these variables into a design and guarantee a safe outcome. (What cannot be refuted by engineering, however, is the fact that people who land on their head rather than their feet have a significantly higher chance of serious injury).
4) Plaintiff's experts claim to have created a safer jump design, and that resorts refuse to embrace their jump style. The jump design is referred to by some as a "turtleback" design or "mound style" jump. The criticism leveled at ski resorts in terrain park litigation centers on charges that resorts do not use engineered designs or standards, create design flaws, and rely on liability shield laws after accidents. I have not met a park designer or resort operator that doesn't hold guest safety at the top of their priorities. The turtleback jump design proposed by plaintiff's experts may reduce EFH, but does not guarantee safety. If a jumper lands on their head and/or neck instead of their feet, the turtleback jump is no "safer" than any other jump design.
5) As the sport has evolved, the generally accepted industry practices have evolved as well, and are available to the resort industry through a number of existing channels. The various associations that make up the US Ski and Snowboard Industry (NSAA, SIA, PSIA, NSP and USSST) have participated in the terrain park dialogue for years. Members of these associations have made significant contributions, participated in field studies, created education and awareness programs, attended seminars and workshops, and produced training and resource guides to communicate "best practices" to the ski resort operators who design, build and maintain terrain parks. The USTPC has not been part of any of these efforts, yet promotes itself as the source to "educate resort management and terrain park patrons as to the best practices in the industry." The first full time parks showed up at US resorts in the mid to late 1980s, and have gone through many changes through the last 25 years. While terrain park design and use is still following the natural evolution of a sport, much has been learned that has helped shape what are today's generally accepted industry practices. Those practices are currently shared among resort operators through regional NSAA seminars and roundtables, SAM's Cutter's Camp program, through various publications including the NSAA Freestyle Terrain Notebook and the PSIA/AASI Park and Pipe Instructor's Guide. There are also excellent resources available through 3rd party companies like Snow Park Technologies, who can bring resources to resorts who may not be up to speed on industry practices. Terrain park practices have been the topic of many panel discussions and presentations since the early 1990s.
It is in the best interests of the stakeholders of our industry to be aware of the resources available to make good decisions. There are a lot of unanswered questions about the organization's promises to keep resorts out of court, or be considered litigation neutral. Terrain Parks are an important part of the winter sports landscape, and all stakeholders will benefit from new information that can help resorts make informed decisions regarding park operations. I am not convinced that having parks certified by a third party benefits a resort, when there is so much unsettled debate regarding the issues. Perhaps the ASTM efforts to pull all the best engineering and operational information together will help. I am an advocate of getting the best information available to the table, and if the USTPC can participate in that through the ASTM, I welcome their input to that debate.
John A. Rice