DENVER – Federal officials have extended the initial time to gather feedback from the public on a proposal by the owners of Silverton Mountain to diversify terrain for helicopter skiing.
The original date to gain feedback from the public was July 17, leaving just two weeks for what is known as a “scoping” period. Connie Clementson, field manager for the Bureau of Land Management’s Tres Rios Field Office, said Monday that the period has been extended to Aug. 17.
Some Silverton-area residents and environmental interests expressed concerns to The Durango Herald on Friday that the public’s input was being limited. They also worried about restricting and diminishing the backcountry experience in the area outlined by the proposal. Some also raised fears over a looming environmental analysis.
Meanwhile, San Juan County officials are working on scheduling a public hearing to discuss the proposal, which could come at the commissioners’ next meeting at 6:30 p.m. July 22, according to William Tookey, county administrator. The board may issue an opinion on the proposal to the BLM.
The owners of Silverton Mountain – husband-and-wife Aaron and Jen Brill – made their proposal through Silverton Guides, the arm of Silverton Mountain that provides heli-skiing adventures. The request would diversify heli-terrain within the Alpine Triangle, a so-called “special recreation management area,” made up of more than 150,000 acres managed by the BLM.
Silverton Mountain’s base – situated off County Road 110 – would be directly across from terrain under consideration. The new areas being considered by the BLM would include small patches to the south, west and north of the base area. The biggest swath would be southeast of the base area on the east side of County Road 2. It would run about six miles north-south and six miles east-west.
In a letter sent to the Herald by the Brills, they say the request is being made for safety reasons, pointing out that they want to exchange high alpine, high avalanche hazard heli-ski terrain for low avalanche hazard, lower elevation terrain.
“Since we have very little moderate terrain available to ski, it makes our operations unnecessarily dangerous for our staff and guests,” the Brills write. “Having some lower elevation, lower hazard and less wind exposed slopes is something Silverton Guides needs.”
The proposal calls for swapping northern terrain pods in exchange for adjacent pods that hold safer terrain.
The Brills add that heli-skiing has become critical to Silverton.
“If the snow isn’t great on the chairlift, they still come to Silverton knowing they can add single runs of heli-skiing that will have quality snow,” they write. “It’s like having an affordable powder-insurance policy. It’s the only location in the lower 48 states where you can heli-ski just a single run, making it attainable for all guests.”
The couple said that even though a BLM map of the proposal includes terrain in Prospect Gulch, Minnehaha and Corkscrew, they have not asked for that to be included in the exchange.
The Brills also point out that after 10 years of heli-skiing, there has not been a noise complaint or conflict with backcountry skiing.
Clementson confirmed that the proposal is only a modification – not an expansion – of Silverton Guides’ existing helicopter permit.
“No, we would not close terrain off,” Clementson said. “The areas currently authorized are also open to everyone – these are public lands open to the public.”
She added that the current phase of the proposal is only a first step. Once the scoping phase closes, officials continue through the environmental analysis, which would then be made public. That analysis would be site-specific, including a 30-day comment period. While the Brills have requested the modification for the 2015-16 ski season, Clementson said the BLM does not have to make any changes in time for the season.
Keith Roush, an experienced backcountry skier and avalanche analyst, voiced his concerns with the proposal to the BLM. He pointed out that the current terrain is insulated from conflict, and he worries that the diversified terrain would clash with the public. He also fears a lack of avalanche planning.
“Part of the reason people go to the backcountry is to experience a quieter place. ... If that’s to change, that really changes the backcountry experience for everyone,” Roush said.
Jimbo Buickerood, public-lands coordinator for San Juan Citizens Alliance, is more worried about the environmental analysis. He fears that some of the pods could be in protected areas and that not enough time is being dedicated to analyzing the impact.
“It’s a controversial project,” he said. “It takes more time when there’s controversy – there’s a lot of issues to address.”