San Juan Citizens Alliance files appeal of Silverton heli-ski expansion

San Juan Citizens Alliance files appeal of Silverton heli-ski expansion

In May, following two years of environmental review, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) granted Silverton Mountain’s request to expand its heli-skiing tenure in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado. Supporters of the deal applauded, of course, but the announcement from the BLM was met with quite a bit of opposition.

Local backcountry skiers and recreation-enthusiasts cherish the easily accessible BLM land around Silverton, and many believe that the heli-ski expansion will infringe upon that territory. In terms of the fine details of the agreement, the deal removes five of Silverton’s active heli-skiing areas (totaling 5,556 acres) and replaces them with four territories 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.

Prior to the approval from the BLM, a local advocacy group called the San Juan Citizens Alliance (SJCA) utilized the Freedom of Information Act to review the almost 400 public comment letters submitted during the fall of 2016. The letters were opinions, both positive and negative, of the expansion.

Touch-down. Photo: Matt Power

In April, the SJCA issued a press release stating that it found that 85-percent of the comments opposed the heli-ski expansion. As a result, the SJCA has filed an appeal with the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA) over what it calls “the BLM’s veiled and illegal process to approve Silerton Guide’s proposal to drastically expand heli-ski operations on public lands surrounding Silverton, CO.”

In the press release relating to the appeal, the SJCA claims that, after obtaining the comment letters through the Freedom of Information Act, 25 public comments were unaccounted for, which spurred the group’s decision to appeal to IBLA.

Alex Hunt samples Silverton’s terrain. Photo: Matt Power

“The Bureau of Land Management is legally responsible to serve the public interest, but in this process they discarded public input in order to reach what seems to be a predetermined outcome benefiting one commercial interest to the detriment of a diverse array of winter recreationists. We simply couldn’t let that go,” said SCJA Lands and Forest Program Manager Jimbo Buickerood.

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 steeper, above treeline zones that were part of the old tenure. The areas encompassed in Silverton’s new tenure will vary in slope angle and difficulty, allowing a broader group of potential guests to experience southwest Coloradan heli-skiing with more assurance that they won’t experience grounded choppers due to weather and snow conditions.

The approval should bring increased revenue into the rural, remote San Juan County, but the SJCA seems intent on re-igniting the public debate and scoping of the deal.

For the full appeal from the SJCA, click here.

To view the BLM’s approval upon environmental review, click here.

For more information on Silverton’s heli-ski operation, click here.

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