Silverton Mountain goes unguided

The long wait is over at Silverton Mountain. Last Friday, after more than six years of Bureau of Land Management review, ski area founders realized their dream of unguided skiing on some of the steepest terrain in the country.

Silverton Mountain founders, Aaron and Jen Brill, first submitted a proposal to the Bureau of Land Management in 1999 to operate an expert backcountry skiing operation on 350 acres of their land and 1,300 acres of adjacent BLM land about 6 miles north of Silverton. In 2001, they installed a double chairlift on their personal property, an old mining claim, with visions of creating a powder skier’s paradise complete 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. For the last four seasons, the ski area has operated on a temporary permit with up to 80 skiers per day in a purely guided format.

Last fall, the BLM announced it would allow up to 475 unguided and guided skiers per day on as many as 1,300 acres of BLM land. And last Friday, the experts-only ski area and 230 skiers and snowboarders celebrated the first day of unguided access.

“Unguided skiing is going great for us,” Jen Brill said. “We had an exciting and historic time last weekend.”

Silverton Mountain is charging $39 for locals and $49 for out-of-towners. On Saturday and Sunday, another 130 people got in line each day to Silverton Mountain without guides. Jen Brill said that she and Aaron hope to keep lift tickets at the $39 level for next year as well.

“Next year will highly depend on this year but that’s the price range we’re trying to stay in,” she said.

The Brills have tentatively set May 7 as closing day. However, the area received 42 inches of snow over the weekend, and the lift will keep running as long as people are lining up to use it.

“The base of our mountain is higher than the peak at Purg,” Jen Brill said. “So it’s going to be winter up here for many weeks to come. May 7 is our last planned weekend, but if the numbers stay strong, we’ll keep going into June and July.”

Guides are still available at the mountain for a $99 ticket. Per BLM safety regulations, the guided ski groups will be allowed to access certain areas of the mountain that will not be available for unguided skiers.


Excel school may join school district

Big changes could be in store for Durango’s Excel Charter School, one of the first charter schools to open in Colorado. Excel hopes to convert to a district-operated magnet school within Durango School District 9-R by fall of 2007 under a joint proposal by Excel leaders and school district administrators.

The “new” school would serve students who currently benefit from Excel’s small-school environment and emphasis on technology and music. Excel will continue to operate as a charter school in 2006-07 while a committee of Excel and district parents, teachers, administrators, board members and community members develop a transition plan.

The Excel board’s decision follows several years of static enrollment growth and financial challenges that have resulted in rapid turnover in school leadership and staff, said Excel Principal Julé Skoglund. As a district-operated magnet school, Excel would be able to improve teacher salaries, reduce staff turnover and better sustain its education initiatives.

“We haven’t had the success that we’ve envisioned, because our enrollment has remained at about 100 to 110 students every year,” Skoglund said. “Without increasing revenue more than we have in the past, we can’t provide significant raises for our teachers. Without better salaries, we’ve been unable to keep the same teachers from year to year. And without a stable staff, it’s difficult to sustain any improvements, because you’re literally starting over every year.”

While Excel’s transformation from an independent charter school to district-operated magnet school may appear to be a defeat for the charter school movement, 9-R Superintendent Mary Barter said the change meets the expectations the Colorado Legislature had for the charter school law.

“The charter school movement began as an effort to give parents and schools more flexibility and freedom from district regulations and state laws to create innovative programs that would improve student achievement,” she said. “It was expected that charter schools would serve as model educational institutions that mainstream K-12 schools would emulate.”

The 9-R School Board must approve the proposal to convert Excel into a magnet school before it moves forward.


Young ATVers face local crackdown

San Juan County officials are preparing to step up efforts that they hope will reduce the number of young users of off-highway-vehicles in the backcountry around Silverton.

Driving public officials is a concern about safety of the drivers. Forest Service regulations require only that drivers be at least 10 years of age. But county officials believe these young drivers tend to be reckless, endangering themselves in the high roads in the rugged topography around Silverton. Consequently, they want off-highway drivers to be at least 16, the legal driving age in Colorado, and insured.

A lesser concern is that younger drivers tend more toward irresponsible off-road driving on delicate, above-timberline tundra and other sensitive areas.

The first step is adoption of a law that formally prescribes a minimum driving age on county roads. But to put teeth into that law, the county commissioners are looking into hiring a part-time staff member for the Sheriff’s Department who will patrol backcountry roads.

Yet another issue is consistency of laws among various jurisdictions in the San Juan Mountains. Many OHV riders cross passes in the Telluride-Ouray-Silverton-Lake City area. That means four counties, three national forests and Bureau of Land Management property could be crossed in a (long) day of riding. Rules about OHV use vary, and the county commissioners hope for more consistency.


SW Colorado nonprofits honored

Southwest Colorado’s nonprofits were recognized this week as Operation Healthy Communities announced its 2006 Southwest Colorado Nonprofit Week Awards.

Three individuals and three organizations rose to the top as finalists for the awards. Susan Bryso,n of the San Juan Mountains Association, Dee Dee deHaro Brown, of the Durango Latino Education Coalition, and Mandy Mikulencak, of the Women’s Resource Center were the finalists for Nonprofit Director of the Year.

Finalists for the Nonprofit Success Awards included Alternative Horizons, the Durango Adult Education Center and the San Juan Citizens Alliance. Kim Newcomer, Operation Healthy Communities executive director, commented that the nominees set the standard for other organizations and make a significant impact on the larger community

The winners of the awards – Susan Bryson and Alternative Horizons – were recognized at an awards luncheon on Wednesday. Looking back on the awards and the past year, Newcomer commented, “I am continually amazed at the level of commitment and passion all the nonprofits of Southwest Colorado exemplify on a daily basis. The recipients of the 2006 awards truly embody the excellence and dedication of our nonprofit community.”

– compiled by Will Sands