After being denied access to public comments made on the proposed heli-ski expansion near Silverton, the San Juan Citizens Alliance has filed a request to force their release.
“In ten years of working with public lands agencies, I’ve never before been forced to file a Freedom of Information Act Request (FOIA) to access public comments that are ethically and legally destined for transparent public review,” Jimbo Buickerood, a program manager for SJCA, said in a prepared statement.
Last fall, the Bureau of Land Management was accepting public comments on a proposed land swap that would effectively increase Silverton Mountain’s available heli-skiing terrain by 10,696-acres, for a total of 25,074 acres.
The proposed exchange caused a heated debate. Those who support the swap say it would increase Silverton Mountain’s business, thereby benefiting winter tourism in the town of Silverton.
Those opposed argue it would compromise prime backcountry ski terrain, and in the process, simply provide a financial boost to Silverton Mountain, and it’s clientele would not likely spend money or stay in Silverton.
During the public comment period, 300 to 400 people submitted a response to the proposed land swap that’s included in a draft Environmental Assessment compiled by the BLM’s Gunnison field office.
When The Durango Herald asked for the individual public comments in February, Gunnison Office Field Manager Elijah Waters denied the request, saying it’s “not the way we do it.”
“We do a public comment summary, and make that available,” he said. “There’s a lot of personal identifiable information in there, and we want to protect people’s right to privacy.”
The public comment period closed Dec. 12. Waters said the “public comment summary” would be available by March 3. But as of March 13, the document was not available.
Other agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Forest Service, make public comments, as well as personal information, readily available online.
Steven Hall, director of communications for the BLM’s Colorado state office, could not expound Monday why the agency would not make public comments available for review.
“I can’t speak for other federal agencies,” he said. “That’s our position on this issue.”
Silverton Mountain is about six miles north of Silverton. The company is owned by Aaron and Jen Brill, who in 2008 purchased Helitrax and began offering heli-skiing in certain areas of the San Juan Mountains.
The Brills 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.
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.
“Winter economy in Silverton is tough,” Aaron Brill said previously. “And heli-skiing is absolutely critical to have.”
Waters said the BLM is aiming for a final decision on the land swap around the first week of April.
“Our timeline is self-imposed,” he said. “It’s more important to get it right.”
Federal agencies usually have 20 business days to respond to a FOIA request. By that time frame, if the FOIA the SJCA made on Friday is granted, public comments would be released April 7.
“Public comments are routinely made public without FOIA requests,” SJCA said in a news release. “San Juan Citizens Alliance continuously works on and reviews public comments through various agencies across two states and at no time in recent memory has access to such comments been denied.”