The military is demanding two Sierra Nevada ski resorts return howitzers used for avalanche control, saying the weapons are needed by troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Alpine Meadows and Mammoth Mountain, under a loan from the U.S. Army, began using five howitzers last year to clear the slopes of avalanche hazards before skiers arrive. The howitzers, fired into snow-covered mountainsides, trigger avalanches while the slopes are empty.
"It was designed to kill people, but it's a very valuable safety tool for us," said Rachael Woods, a spokeswoman at Lake Tahoe's Alpine Meadows, where seven people were killed in an avalanche in March 1982.
The ski resorts received word earlier this month that the Army's Tank Automotive and Armaments Command at the Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois needs the howitzers immediately.
Don Bowen, the Army command's team leader in charge of the howitzers, said the five howitzers are active military weapons and are in high demand.
"I need to have them back in the troops' hands within 60 to 90 days," Bowen said from Rock Island, a major manufacturing center for the Army. "It's a very short time frame to get them serviceable and back into the theater ... in southwest Asia. Afghanistan-Iraq is the immediate concern."
Howitzers are short-barreled cannons that typically are pulled by a vehicle. They fire three to 10 rounds per minute at a range of about five to 10 miles.
"These weapons came from an active Army unit," Bowen said Tuesday. "The replacement cost if you were to build one today is probably somewhere in the vicinity of $1 million."
Bob Moore, a U.S. Forest Service winter sports specialist in Truckee, Calif., said Alpine Meadows and Mammoth Mountain are the only ski resorts in the nation using the 119-A howitzer, the most modern model available. Other resorts have older 105 mm howitzers.
The military loaned two of the howitzers to Alpine Meadows and three to Mammoth Mountain.
"They (military) are using them in Iraq and they got some service problems," Moore said. "They have huge shortages of everything from troops to bullets."
Officials at the ski resorts said they never fathomed that the war would require returning the avalanche-fighting tools, but they will comply.
"Given it's a war effort, their needs are greater than ours," said Larry Heywood, Alpine Meadows' director of mountain operations. "We, in wishful thinking, thought they would allow us to continue using them for a long time. That may have been the case except there's a war going on."
Heywood said he was told by arsenal employees that they want the howitzers because new Army units will need the weapons under a restructuring plan.
"They need 50 of these weapons in the summer and a lot more after that. There's a shortage of them," Heywood said.
Pam Murphy, senior vice president at Mammoth Mountain just east of Yosemite National Park, said the military has provided the ski resort with recoilless rifles and other guns for avalanche control for 30 years.
The howitzers are the most effective avalanche tool, allowing the resorts to cover terrain much more quickly, Murphy said.
Resort officials said they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to transport the guns, reimburse the Army for training and build firing platforms.
"This has taken us by surprise. The military has always owned them, but they never asked for them back," Murphy said. "We regret it ... (but) we're certainly at a different place in the world than when we first got the guns."
Moore said he's working to secure older howitzers for the ski resorts, and Bowen said he's optimistic that will happen.
"It was a one-year lease to begin with. It was a temporary measure to try to buy some time until we could find them some other ones," Bowen said.
"We're trying to get them a 101 mm howitzer, a nonactive weapon that can shoot the same ammunition," he said.