Bureau of Land Management approves expansion of Silverton’s heli-skiing terrain

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After two years of environmental review, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has approved an expansion of Silverton Mountain’s heli-skiing terrain.

The agreement removes five of Silverton’s active heli-skiing permit areas (totaling 5,556 acres) and replaces them with four areas of BLM land that amount to 16,250 acres. This ups the operation’s heli-skiing terrain from 10,696 acres to 25,074 acres—you could fit almost five Vails in that amount of land. The motivation for the land swap is to provide less hazardous and wind-affected terrain for paying guests to ski on, rather than some of the riskier zones that were part of the old tenure. The zones encompassed in Silverton’s new tenure will vary in slope angle and difficulty, allowing a broader group of potential guests to experience heli-skiing with Silverton in Southwest Colorado.

The Silverton bird coming in for a landing. Photo: Matt Power

“Heli-skiing is a very popular activity in the area that creates a significant boost to the winter economy of Silverton,” said Elijah Waters, BLM Gunnison field manager said in a 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.”

While the deal is a win for the ski area, and will certainly bring even more revenue into the rural and remote San Juan County, the proposal—which was introduced in 2015—has been met with some opposition from local backcountry skiers who covet the easily accessible BLM land that’s prevalent in the area. Some, like outspoken Silverton-local Michael Constantine, believe that the heli-ski operation in general takes away from what the Silverton Ski Area was originally meant to be: a minimalist operation aimed at a backcountry-esque experience.

“The town of Silverton and backcountry ski users in the region were sold on the idea of a minimal infrastructure ski area for advanced and expert skiers,” Constantine said in a letter to the BLM Gunnison Field Office from November 2016. “As a wilderness enthusiast and backcountry snowboarder, I went against my own principles to enthusiastically support Silverton Mountain when we were promised a low-key hardcore ski area. I and others labored and sacrificed and suffered to see that dream happen. We were led on for years, but the promise was never delivered upon. And now it threatens to morph into the exact polar opposite—a heli-ski resort”

While Constantine’s comments could be viewed as vociferous, an advocacy group called the San Juan Citizens Alliance (SJCA) filed to review the public comment letters issued regarding the proposed expansion through the Freedom of Information Act. What it found in April of 2017 was that over 85-percent of the comments opposed the heli-ski expansion.

“Hopefully the BLM is paying specific attention to the reality that a strong majority of the public is opposed to the proposed heli-ski expansion, much of which would border the two San Juan County roads utilized by winter recreationists to reach their destinations,” SCJA Lands and Forest Program Manager Jimbo Buickerood said in a statement on April 4. “It would be an incredible disservice to the public to approve expanding the operations of one business to the detriment of a diversity of other winter users who have utilized this territory for decades.”

A sampling of the terrain at Silverton Mountain. Photo: Matt Power

The interests of the backcountry enthusiasts were taken into consideration, although not since the public comment period. Following a public scoping in the summer of 2015, Silverton Guides took strides to respond to the backcountry community and modified its proposed terrain swap, reducing the amount of land it wanted to be included in its Special Recreation Permit.

In any case, in its Final Environmental Assessment released Wednesday, the BLM stated that, “Heli-skiing is an essential part of the business for Silverton Mountain Ski Area and Silverton Guides both in terms of the revenue it generates and the competitive advantage it creates when compared to other ski resorts in Colorado.”

Indeed, the heli-ski operation at Silverton gives it a leg-up on the majority of Colorado ski areas that do not provide heli-skiing (Telluride Helitrax is the only other outfit in the state). While Silverton and Helitrax operate in close proximity, Silverton is still the only company to allow single-run heli-skiing, which is relatively affordable and opens up the business to a much broader skiing consumer base.

Silverton has offered heli-skiing since 2008, and the service has become a major revenue stream for the ski area as well as the town of Silverton, which has benefitted from increased outdoor recreation-based tourism since Silverton Mountain opened in 2002. Despite ongoing opposition from sectors of the backcountry community, with the approval in place, the expansion is sure to contribute to bringing in even more dollars from tourism—an industry that accounts for 47 percent of jobs in San Juan County.


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