Environmental assessment must do a better job of addressing public concerns ~ Op/Ed ~ The Durango Herald ~ MAKE YOUR COMMENT HEARD TODAY/DEC. 12TH !!

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Silverton in winter is tough.

That fact is one thing upon which most residents agree. The tiny mountain hamlet has struggled economically for years. Silverton Mountain and Silverton Guides have become an increasingly important part of the winter recreation economy. This year is no different.

What has changed and caused local concern is their scaled-back ski area operation (this season opening on Dec. 29, a month later than usual), the elimination of unguided skiing in December and January and the proposal to expand their Special Recreation Permit area issued by the Bureau of Land Management.

The permit authorizes Silverton Mountain and Silverton Guides, both owned by CEO Aaron Brill, to operate their on-area and helicopter ski operations on publicly-owned lands. This proposal, requesting a permit expansion of 10,686 acres for guided helicopter skiing, has received the most attention, as it should.

Three hundred and twenty-five million American public landowners have a stake in decisions made about public land use, whether for recreation, agriculture or energy development. It is communities like Silverton, adjacent to these lands, however, that have the most to gain or lose from these decisions.

It is why they must be made carefully, and the BLM should revisit its preliminary Environmental Assessment of the project’s social and environmental impacts. Unfortunately, the draft EA released on Nov. 10 fails to address all the issues brought forth by the public.

Of more than 200 comments received on the January 2015 proposal, about 80 percent were against the expansion and cited user conflict as their main concern. Silverton benefits from the ski area, but it is not the only winter use. Backcountry skiers and riders, snowmobilers, ice-climbers, snow scientists, avalanche educators, mountaineers, snowshoers and, most recently, fat-bike riders have taken to the backcountry around Silverton.

Though the revised proposal no longer includes some popular, closer-in backcountry ski terrain, the EA is insufficient in its analysis, cites no user numbers and does not adequately address potential conflict and displacement of these other winter users.

It is the growing backcountry ski community that has been most vocal in its opposition to the proposal, but the Colorado Snowmobile Association, Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle Coalition and Colorado Trails Preservation Alliance also oppose it, citing concerns about continued public access, a worry shared by backcountry skiers who are experiencing a bit of déjà vu.

In the early permitting of Silverton Mountain, historic ski touring terrain was to remain open to the public, but in the end did not. Now those same skiers do not trust that the new area would avoid user conflicts and remain publicly accessible.

Although the BLM does plan to rehire a snow ranger, the EA’s most glaring omission is sufficient discussion of snow safety, avalanche control and any training requirements for guides. Public safety should be one of the BLM’s main concerns and something the EA must address.

Against all odds, Silverton Mountain has managed to make it work for close to 15 years, and Silverton Guides is a part of its business plan to remain viable. It is a tough business climate; their continued success should not be taken for granted.

The revised proposal includes a no-fly zone, wilderness buffer and omits some popular ski terrain, but the EA needs work.

The deadline to comment is Monday/TODAY!!!!!.

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