Backcountry gate added to ski area

Right on the heels of its first day of unguided skiing, Silverton Mountain is getting another gift from the Bureau of Land Management. As early as this weekend, skiers at the expert-only ski area will have access to a backcountry gate. This new access point will allow skiers to access backcountry terrain outside the Silverton Mountain Ski Area boundary after gaining elevation primarily by chairlift.

Silverton Mountain owner Aaron Brill explained that he has been discussing the gate with the BLM for many years and similar access points exist at ski areas like Telluride and Aspen Mountain.

“It’s been a discussion point for as long as I can remember,” Brill said. “The BLM and Forest Service typically allow a backcountry access point at every ski area that wants one.”

Brill and the BLM are currently fine tuning the gate’s location. Richard Speegle, recreation project leader for the agency, said that safety is a top consideration given the area’s rugged terrain.

“Gates are already in use in a lot of ski areas,” Speegle said. “However, we’re not just going to put the access point anywhere. We’re looking at the locations very carefully.”

Brill said the gate will most likely be located high on Silverton Mountain, somewhere near the top of the Billboard. Once skiers and snowboarders leave the ski area, re-entry will be prohibited except at the base area. Brill added that once people cross the gate, the ski area is no longer liable for any accidents.  “People will be entering BLM public land and on their own,” he said.

Silverton Mountain founders, Aaron and Jen Brill, first submitted a proposal to the Bureau of Land Management in 1999 to operate an expert 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 in early April, the experts-only ski area and 230 skiers and snowboarders celebrated the first day of unguided access.

Silverton Mountain is currently charging $39 for locals and $49 for out-of-towners and is open on Saturdays and Sundays. The area plans to stay open at least through the end of April.


 Local schools tackle student health

The local school district is getting serious about student health. Durango School District 9-R hopes to take a more pro-active role in the promotion of student health and lifelong wellness with completion of its first-ever Wellness Action Plan.

Developed by a team of district and community health advocates, the draft action plan outlines steps for creating a “standardized, consistent health system” that promotes “home, school and community involvement to educate and ensure lifelong healthy habits for our youth.” Members from the district’s Health and Wellness Team and the community-based School Health Advisory Council believe it could be a first step toward changing student health habits.

“Good nutrition and exercise during the school years are critical for children to grow strong, to succeed academically and to establish healthy habits for a lifetime,” said District Health Coordinator Jaynee Fontecchio-Spradling.

The coordinated health program is part of a state and national effort to address the growing problem of childhood obesity caused by over-consumption of nutrient-poor foods and decreased activity. Obesity rates have doubled in children and tripled in adolescents since 1980, and obesity eventually contributes to other health problems, including heart disease and diabetes, said Fontecchio-Spradling.


Hope rises for local mine clean-up

The San Juan Mountains are littered with old mines, and many of them are still polluting the Animas River watershed with contaminants like arsenic, cadmium and zinc. With the original owners long gone in many cases, so-called good Samaritans would like to step in to address the pollution but fear doing so because of the potential for continued liability under existing laws. However, Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., is working on legislation that would allow such groups to go in and do the clean-up work.

Salazar’s bill proposes a time-limited pilot program applicable to only the Animas River drainage. In remarks before a congressional committee, Salazar noted the urgent need to clean up sites in rural Colorado and improve drinking water for the City of Durango and other communities in the watershed.

“Good Samaritans are willing to help clean up the Animas River basin so we can all enjoy clean water,” he said. “These are the kinds of local efforts government should support and encourage, but the rules in place create unnecessary roadblocks.”

The news is particularly relevant to the Animas River Stakeholders Group, a collaboration of local, state and federal agencies, assorted landowners, mining companies, environmental groups and others. The innovation group has been working on cleaning up the Animas River basin for more than a decade.

Among the Animas River Basin’s 1,500 mines, the group has identified 174 mines from which water is draining and another 158 mine dumps and tailing impounds that are especially dirty.

Earth Day kicks off trail work season

The Bureau of Land Management and Trails 2000 will combine efforts this Saturday for Earth Day and Durango’s first major trail project of the season. The project will focus on rerouting a portion of the Cowboy Trail on BLM land around an expanding gravel pit in the Grandview Ridge area east of Durango.

The effort will be led by Mary Monroe, executive director of Trails 2000, along with Don Kelly and Richard Speegle, of the BLM.

“We all thought this would be a great project to kick off the trail work season,” Monroe said. “Trails 2000 contributes thousands of hours annually to maintaining trails in this area, and the BLM has been a fantastic partner.”

Kelly, trails foreman for the Columbine Ranger District, agreed that the collaboration is a good way to kick off the season, saying, “We count on Trails 2000 to help us keep trails in great shape, so we’re really looking forward to being out there on Earth Day.”

Volunteers will meet at 9 a.m. on April 22, at the Sale Barn Trailhead behind Dietz Market.

– compiled by Will Sands