|Aaron Brill, owner of Silverton
Mountain, enjoys some down time recently at the ski area
near Silverton. The draft environmental statement on the
ski area was recently released and a decision on how the
ski area will operate is expected this winter./Photo by
The storm of controversy surrounding the
Silverton Mountain Ski Area appears to be subsiding. With the
recent release of a draft environmental impact statement and
some kind of approval imminent, many opponents of the backcountry
ski area seem to have grudgingly accepted the existence of lift-served
skiing on Storm Peak.
The idea for Silverton Mountain Ski Area was first hatched
nearly four years ago. With similar operations in New Zealand
in mind, Aaron Brill envisioned an atypical ski area where the
turns would be steep, uncrowded and always fresh. He also wanted
a ski area free of real estate development, the cash cow of
most ski operations. To make the undertaking even more challenging,
Brill wanted to make this ski bum’s dream accessible to
the ski bum and said he would limit ticket prices to $25.
An uphill climb
Over the last few years, Brill’s original vision has
fought an uphill battle. Foremost, Silverton Mountain has been
limited by a slow governmental process for the last two seasons.
Brill owns 350 acres of old mining claims on the 13,487-foot
Storm Peak, roughly six miles from Silverton. At the outset,
he went after a Bureau of Land Management permit to allow skiing
on 1,300 adjacent acres of public land. As Brill completed construction
of his single, two-seat lift and made the push toward opening
day late in 2001, the BLM decided an environmental impact statement
would be necessary. After nearly two years, a draft of that
EIS was released late last month with a preferred alternative
that calls for a mix of guided and unguided skiing depending
on snow safety. The BLM is currently soliciting public comment
on the document.
In addition to slow environmental review, Brill also has faced
substantial opposition to his plan from the beginning. Members
of the backcountry ski community both in Silverton and Durango,
many of whom had accessed Storm Peak and the adjacent Minnehaha
and Velocity basins for decades, have objected to the creation
of the ski area. These tensions culminated when a closure to
do avalanche control work served as a flashpoint between Brill
and members of the backcountry skiing community.
Here to stay
However, with the recent release of the EIS and two seasons
of guided skiing under Silverton Mountain’s belt, objections
seem to be relaxing.
“I really haven’t experienced any community opposition
since last winter,” Brill said. “As far as I know,
the people who used to be giving us problems are mellowing out.”
Brill added that Silverton Mountain Ski Area’s one lift,
a recycled, two-seat Yand from California, is not going anywhere.
“I think most people realize at this point that we’re
here, and they might as well enjoy it,” he said. “We’re
not going to be taking down the lift.”
Dave Fiddler, a member of the Silverton Town Council and course
director with the Silverton Avalanche School, agreed that tensions
“I think because it’s summer the whole thing has
died down quite a bit,” he said. “The feedback from
the winter operation has also really been positive.”
Fiddler added that Silverton Mountain may impact backcountry
skiing negatively, but it has helped Silverton’s sagging
winter economy. “The people that are against it are usually
coming at it from an outdoor recreation perspective,”
he said. “Personally, I also understand the business perspective,
and overall my opinion is a positive one. I wish Aaron the best
John O’Carroll runs a nonprofit in Silverton that provides
free planning services to rural communities and is by no means
pleased with the existence of Brill’s lift on the west
side of Storm Peak.
“I am very concerned about the environmental impact and
the long-term impact of real estate speculation in that basin,”
he said. “It goes against the grain of what this community
has articulated as its vision.”
O’Carroll said that the price of real estate is escalating
radically throughout the Silverton area. He credited Brill and
Silverton Mountain for fueling some of that speculation.
“There’s been a considerable amount of real estate
speculation in Silverton in the last 18 months,” he said.
“A week ago, the last house priced under $200,000 went
under contract according to our records.”
Still, in spite of these and other grievances, O’Carroll
and Community Design will not be taking advantage of the opportunity
to comment on the Silverton Mountain EIS.
“I can’t imagine that the BLM will not pursue its
compromise at this point,” he said. “I think it’s
kind of a foregone conclusion, and I’ve directed our students
to work on something else.”
Keith Roush, of Durango, has backcountry skied in the vicinity
of Storm Peak for the last 20 years and also was strongly opposed
to lift-served skiing on the mountain. Like O’Carroll,
Roush has accepted the existence of the Silverton Mountain Ski
Area and the likelihood that the BLM will issue Brill a permit.
Unlike O’Carroll, Roush will be penning a letter to the
BLM and encouraging safety and environmental friendliness at
“I think the key is that it’s done in a safe manner
that’s friendly to the environment,” he said.
Colorado Wild and San Juan Citizens’ Alliance are two
local conservation organizations that also will likely be commenting
on the EIS. Jeff Berman, executive director of Colorado Wild,
has only begun to review the document and said he will probably
“We will most likely write a brief letter toward the
end of the comment period expressing any concerns we might have,”
Mark Pearson, executive director of San Juan Citizens’
Alliance, said that he has yet to review the document. However,
he noted that the most significant issues with the ski area
are safety and avalanche related and not environmental.
“I think the biggest issues are related to safety and
avalanche danger, and that doesn’t have anything to do
with environmental issues,” he said.
Brill echoed this sentiment, saying, “The EIS points
out that the environmental concerns just aren’t there.”
Brill also said that charges that Silverton Mountain is fueling
real estate speculation are ludicrous. “Right now the
biggest problem for real estate in Silverton is the summer second-home
market,” he said. “They’re the ones taking
homes out of the rental market.”
As for overall impact, Brill said that Silverton Mountain hosted
2,700 skier days last year. “What we did in a year, the
train does in a day,” he said.
Richard Speegle, BLM project leader, said that socio-economic
issues were considered in the EIS, but that the challenge for
Silverton Mountain will be surmounting avalanche danger. “The
major issues that came out of the EIS are safety and avalanche
issues,” he said. “All along, the snow safety experts
all said that it’s doable, but he’ll have to have
an expensive snow-safety program.”
The BLM will accept public comments on the Silverton Mountain
EIS until Sept. 18. Speegle said that “something might
crop up,” but is optimistic that a final decision will
be made in December.
“That’s if everything goes well,” he said.
“We’re focusing on this and want a decision.”