Brills & BLM thrash local San Juan backcountry users … again

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The Brills

Denver Post

The Bureau of Land Management has approved an expansion of helicopter skiing terrain for Silverton Mountain.

Silverton Guides’ proposal to swap 5,556 acres of permitted heliskiing terrain for 16,252 acres of new terrain was approved by the BLM Wednesday after nearly two years of environmental review. The deal gives the operation more than 25,000 acres of helicopter accessible ski terrain in the San Juans in southwest Colorado.

Silverton Mountain and Silverton Guides co-owner Aaron Brill proposed the swap to meet growing demand for heliskiing with below-treeline terrain that reduced avalanche hazard by offering less-steep, more wind-protected runs.

“With few economic opportunities in Silverton, especially in the winter, this is approval is really important to the Silverton economy,” Brill said. “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. Skiing is rapidly being taken over by the mega ski corporations of Vail and KSL, which have become the Walmarts of skiing, which makes it harder for the independent ski areas to survive and we are thankful for the BLM approval.”

The proposal generated angst among backcountry users who feared the swap would push them out of easily accessible ski and snowmobile terrain. The BLM received more than 370 comments — most of them opposing the swap and arguing the helicopter skiing and explosive avalanche mitigation would disrupt recreation in the regions.

The BLM’s 59-page Environmental Assessment — studying what is the agency’s only helicopter skiing permit in the Lower 48 states — grants a five-year permit, but caps the number of annual user days at 600. It also establishes flight corridors and no-fly zones around the town of Silverton and confines landing zones to certain areas.

“Heliskiing is a very popular activity in the area that creates a significant boost to the winter economy of Silverton. This decision lets Silverton Guides fully utilize their allocated user days while having a minimal effect on other backcountry users,” BLM Gunnison field manager Elijah Waters said in a written statement. “It’s a win-win for everyone involved.”

Not really, said Jimbo Buickerood with the San Juan Citizens Alliance. The group opposed the expansion plan and filed a Freedom of Information Act request for details of each comment submitted and found that more than three-quarters opposed the plan, Buickerood said.

The backlash, Buickerood said, “definitely surprised” him.

“This is not about expanding skiing into backcountry areas. This is putting helicopter skiing operations in the frontcountry on top of users of the only two county roads in the area,” Buickerood said. “There is some extremely strong opposition to this. Backcountry skiers are just a little part of this. There’s the snowmobile community, ice climbers, people walking their dogs and people on skinny skis going for a tour. The BLM is completely negating very strong opposition to this expansion.”

Brill, along with his wife Jen, opened Silverton Mountain in 2002, offering a single lift to steep terrain that appealed to expert skiers. Six years later, the couple acquired an unused permit for helicopter skiing near their ski area from Helitrax near Telluride. Soon the Brills expanded their heliskiing operations into Alaska, where Silverton Guides now has permits for on more than 15 million acres across the state.

In 2015, Brill approached the BLM with a problem. During periods of high avalanche hazard, he could not offer heliskiing clients safer terrain below treeline. Winds blasting the higher terrain made avalanche mitigation challenging, increasing the risk for his guides and clients.

He proposed swapping five areas of skiable terrain for several areas with lower-hazard terrain. Brill noted that his ski area is the largest employer in San Juan County and his helicopter assists the Colorado Department of Transportation in rockslide projects on Colorado 550 and often assists local search teams on rescue missions.

The BLM, in its Final Environmental Assessment report issued Wednesday, noted that helicopter skiing “is an essential part of the business for Silverton Mountain … in terms of revenue it generates and the competitive advantage it creates when compared to other ski resorts in Colorado.”

The BLM said approving the proposal “would contribute a positive economic benefit to the economy and residents of the town of Silverton and San Juan County.”

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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.

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Most who comment oppose Silverton Guides’ heli-ski land swap

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.

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