A little more than three weeks remain for public comments on a proposed land swap between Silverton Mountain ski area and the Bureau of Land Management.
Last year, Silverton Guides, the arm of Silverton Mountain that provides helicopter skiing, submitted a request to the BLM to remove five active permit areas for heli-skiing that total 5,556-acres in exchange for four other areas around Silverton, about 16,250 acres.
The swap would effectively increase Silverton Mountain’s available heli-skiing terrain by 10,696-acres for a total of 25,074 acres.
Grouse Gulch, Cinnamon, Houghton, Poughkeepsie and Ross Basin would be removed from Silverton Mountain’s recreation permit, and Illinois/Hancock, Southeast, Round and Minnie/Maggie gulches would be added.
Silverton Mountain is off U.S. Highway 550 on County Road 110, about six miles north of the town of Silverton. It is owned by Aaron and Jen Brill. The ski area offers some of the most extreme terrain in North America, with only one lift that brings adventurists to remote areas that require additional hiking.
Six years after the ski area opened in 2002, the Brills purchased Helitrax, and heli-skiing became a major source of revenue for the small operation. The company also extended service in Alaska.
“Winter economy in Silverton is tough ... and the town is overwhelming in support of the project because Silverton Mountain is the primary driver of winter economy,” Aaron Brill said. “And heli-skiing is absolutely critical to have.”
Brill said research has shown visitors chose to ski Silverton because the mountain offers both a chairlift option and a heli-ski option, with some of the most affordable rates in the country.
“That drives the majority of guests to Silverton, and gets people into town,” he said.
The proposed swap, however, has drawn the ire of some outdoor recreationists who say it would compromise prime backcountry areas for the sole purpose of attracting tourists, benefitting only Silverton Mountain and not the town’s economy.
Michael Constantine, an outspoken critic, wrote in his public comment, which was also emailed to The Durango Herald, that Silverton’s drop in economy has been happening only in the winter as helicopter skiing was expanded and unguided skiing was all but phased out.
“Granting their permit request will allow them to expand heli-skiing to the point where they will build their own resort hotel outside of Silverton that will crush what little is left of the town’s winter economy,” he wrote. “Each winter, tourist businesses in Silverton are reducing their hours and the number of days they open. Some are deciding not to open at all.”
Brill disagreed, dismissing any notion that the ski mountain would build a resort lodge out of Silverton city limits.
“It’s a pretty well thought out proposal, relinquishing some terrain much closer to where people currently backcountry tour,” he said. “We’re essentially giving up terrain where people would hear noise, and moving it to an area that sees a lot less use.”
The public comment period is open until Dec. 12. After that time, the BLM will come up with an “agency preferred alternative” for the final Environmental Assessment, which is not a final decision.
A final decision would be documented in a Decision Record following the publication of the Final EA. No time frame has been set for this decision.