Silverton Mountain gets last-minute OK
San Juan Public Lands issues temporary permit for 80 guided skiers a day


13,487-foot Storm Peak, home to Silverton Mountain, towers over the town of Silverton in this recent photo. The ski area was recently issued a permit to conduct 80 guided trips a day for the upcoming season, which starts on Thanksgiving. The area is still waiting for a final decision from the BLM on its long-term operating plan, which calls for unguided skiing on more than 1,300 acres./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Silverton Mountain will be firing up its lifts next Thursday, Nov. 26 for what owner Aaron Brill hopes will be its third and final season operating under a temporary permit from the San Juan Public Lands Office. With less than two weeks to spare before opening day, Brill was given the go ahead Nov. 14 to conduct 80 guided tours a day, double what he was allowed the season before.

And while the latest permit is a far cry from Brill’s original proposal for 475 unguided skiers a day – which is still awaiting a final decision – he said it is welcome news after four years of a costly application and environmental review process.

“I’m psyched,” he said. “It’s excellent news.”

In 1999, Brill submitted a proposal to the Bureau of Land Management to operate an expert backcountry skiing operation on 350 acres of his land and 1,300 acres of adjacent BLM land about six miles north of Silverton. He installed a double chairlift on his property, an old mining claim, in 2001 with visions of creating a powder skier’s paradise with $25 lift tickets and a 475-skier cap.

However, the dream was put on hold when the BLM ordered an environmental impact statement to assess the full effects of the ski area. The draft of the EIS was issued last summer and outlined four alternatives for operating the ski area, including the preferred alternative – a mix of guided and unguided skiing. The comment period on the draft EIS closed Sept. 18, and the BLM hopes to respond to the comments and release the final EIS sometime early next year.

“We’re shooting for a decision in January or February,” said Richard Speegle, BLM project leader, adding that once the final EIS is issued, there will be an appeals period.

Brill said, best-case scenario, a decision this winter could mean unguided skiing in the spring.

“The soonest we could do unguided skiing would be April 1, but there are a lot of ‘ifs,’” he said.

In the meantime, Brill has hired more guides to cover the increase in skier numbers and has begun boot packing the area’s above-treeline slopes. More than 100 skiers showed up to the ski area last Saturday to help with the packing, he said, adding that the process should help stabilize the slopes and allow for more access this year.

“We had a huge turnout,” he said of last weekend’s bootpacking. “It kept a lot of deep slab from forming and hopefully added two more runs to our core area.”

Silverton Mountain owner Aaron Brill
looks over the ski area’s draft EIS last
summer. The final EIS should be
released early next year./Photo by Scott Smith

And while Silverton Mountain has increased its capacity and terrain this season, it also has increased its prices, a result of the environmental review process, Brill said. Lift tickets, which went for $99 the first two seasons, will increase by 20 percent, to $119 for the peak months of January, February and March. However, Brill said the area will be offering reduced rates of $89 to locals for November, December and April, and anyone who participates in this weekend’s bootpacking will receive a free lift ticket, also good for those months.

As far as unguided lift tickets go, Brill said should the occasion arise, he expects them to be in the $30-range, depending on what the ski area “needs to do to make ends meet at that point.”

According to Brill, the higher prices were necessary to offset the cost of the EIS, which he estimates will come in at around $300,000 – almost four times the original BLM estimate of $80,000.

“It’s just mind boggling,” he said. “When all is said and done, it’s going cost more than our chairlift.”

Speegle, of the BLM, said the cost overrun stems from the fact that the original estimate was based on a less stringent environmental assessment for the ski area. However, as avalanche safety became a major concern, the more involved and costly EIS was necessary.

“We underestimated the time it would take to do the analysis,” he said, pointing out that much of this is uncharted territory for the BLM. Most ski areas are operated on U.S. Forest Service land, he said. “Generally, the BLM doesn’t have expertise in the area.”

However, he said with the addition of a snow ranger last winter to monitor the ski area’s avalanche compliance, the BLM is getting a much better handle on the topic of safety, which has helped facilitate the process.

“It’s better for Aaron and better for us,” said Speegle. “When you have someone on the ground, you really can get a grip on what’s going on.”

And while the cost of Silverton Mountain’s environmental study may seem astronomical, Speegle pointed out that it actually is a bargain compared with what some of the larger resorts are paying.

Jenny Ader-Brill launches air at Silverton Mountain. The ski area speculates it could offer unguided skiing as early as this spring if the environmental study process goes as planned./Photo by Scott Smith.

“If you were to look at the average cost of (the National Environmental Policy Act), you’d find it would be a lot more,” he said.

Nevertheless, he added that the BLM is striving to economize the process.

“Every nickel counts,” he said. “We’re doing our best to keep the cost down.”

To its credit, Brill said the San Juan Public Lands Office has picked up the pace with the recent appointment of San Juan Forest Supervisor Mark Stiles, who filled the spot in May which was vacated by Cal Joyner a couple of years ago.

“Since Mark Stiles started, things have picked up,” Brill said. “Before, no one was in his position to make the decisions.”

And although it remains to be seen what the final outcome of the entire process will be, Brill remains optimistic, noting that if the preferred alternative is chosen – a mix of guided and unguided skiing – it will be a decision he “can live with.”

“It’s something we can work with and make it happen,” he said. “It will be a relief to have some type of understanding to see what out future will look like.”






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