A controversial expansion of helicopter skiing terrain near Silverton was approved Wednesday by the Bureau of Land Management.
The BLM announced in its Final Environmental Assessment that it approved Silverton Guides’ request to swap 5,556 acres for 16,250 acres of BLM land in other areas of the San Juan Mountains around Silverton.
Silverton Guides, an arm of Silverton Mountain, which is owned by Aaron and Jen Brill, now boasts more than 25,000 acres of helicopter ski terrain in the high country around Silverton.
The Brills purchased Silverton Mountain in 2002, and started to offer heli-skiing about six years later after the company acquired Telluride-based Helitrax’s permit for the activity in certain areas of the San Juan Mountains.
The company has since expanded service to Alaska.
In 2015, the Brills asked for the land swap, arguing that for safety reasons, they wanted to exchange high elevation, avalanche prone terrain for lower elevation areas with less risk of avalanche.
The Brills also noted that Silverton Mountain is one of San Juan County’s largest employers in the winter months, with a staff of about 45 people. The expansion, the Brills said previously, would increase that benefit to the community.
On Wednesday, Aaron Brill wrote in an emailed response that “with few economic opportunities in Silverton especially in the winter, this is approval is really important to the Silverton economy.”
“Lots of confusion existed regarding our proposal, and after listening to public input the final product is one that is greatly reduced in scope and size,” Brill wrote.
“Skiing is rapidly being taken over by the mega ski corporations of Vail and KSL which have become the Wal-Mart’s of skiing, which makes it harder for the independent ski areas to survive and we are thankful for the BLM approval.”
Wednesday’s announcement ends nearly three years of contentious debate surrounding the land swap, with critics arguing the exchange would compromise prime backcountry ski areas and pose an added risk of avalanche danger.
A public comment period revealed that nearly 85 percent of about 370 people who commented opposed the land exchange. The San Juan Citizens Alliance filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the public comments, forcing the BLM, which had refused to release them, to make them openly available.
Jimbo Buickerood, with the alliance, said the BLM’s approval “represents their continued disinterest in seriously considering the comments submitted by the public.”
“The vigorous opposition ranged from the Colorado Snowmobile Association to Silverton residents just wanting a quiet and safe place to walk their dog,” he said. “Most of us in Southwest Colorado feel that the priority use of our lands is for the public at large rather than for elite and private use. Obviously the BLM is clueless to that reality.”
The BLM, in its Final Environmental Assessment, attached regulations that include restricted flight corridors, no fly-zones near the town of Silverton and limits the annual user days at 600.
“Heli-skiing is a very popular activity in the area that creates a significant boost to the winter economy of Silverton,” Gunnison Field Manager Elijah Waters said in a prepared statement.
“This decision lets Silverton Mountain Guides fully utilize their allocated user days while having a minimal effect on other backcountry users. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.”
The BLM’s permit is for five years. The agency requires Silverton Guides to exercise standard operating procedures, including a thorough visual reconnaissance to assure the absence of hikers, backcountry skiers or snowmobilers, prior to any explosive use for avalanche mitigation.
Grouse Gulch, Cinnamon, Houghton, Poughkeepsie and Ross basins were removed from Silverton Guides’ recreation permit, and Illinois/Hancock, Southeast, Round and Minnie/Maggie gulches were added in the trade.