Heli-skiing expansion pitched

Heli-skiing could be flying into the San Juan Mountains in a big way next season. The Bureau of Land Management is currently accepting feedback on a proposal from Telluride Helitrax to expand the capacity of its operation in the backcountry around Silverton.

Helitrax has proposed changing the terms of its Special Recreation Permit for commercial heli-skiing services on BLM lands in the Silverton area. The proposal calls for dramatic increases in the length of the permit term and the number of service days. A service day is defined as one skier for one day. The private, Telluride-base company has not asked for an expansion of its permit boundary into any new areas of the backcountry.

Helitrax has held a one-year permit with the BLM since 1995, and it has conducted limited commercial helicopter skiing (35 to 50 service days a year) in the Alpine Loop area near Silverton. John Humphries, owner of Helitrax, explained that the company hasn’t had a bigger local presence for practical reasons. “The reason we haven’t had more historical use is that we’re such a conservative company because of the danger of where we ski and the San Juans’ high avalanche hazard,” he said. “We know the terrain better around Telluride, and that’s why we’ve skied more around there.”

Richard Speegle, recreation project leader for the BLM, commented that whenever Helitrax does ski around Silverton, the impacts have been light. “They’re in good standing and have always been a good operation since they first had a permit in 1995,” he said.

Riding on this good track record, Helitrax would now like to substantially increase its heli-skiing offerings around Silverton. The company has proposed increasing its service days from 50 to 600. Humphries argued that the increase is not as significant as it looks on paper. “If we used all 600 days, that would still only be a total 112 hours of operation,” he said. “When you think about it, it’s really not that much over the course of an entire winter.”

In addition, Helitrax has requested a 10-year permit. However, the BLM has come back at Helitrax was a less ambitious expansion in its recently released environmental assessment.

“Our preferred alternative is authorizing 300 service days instead of 600 days,” Speegle said. “We’ve also proposed making it a five-year permit rather than a 10-year. At the end of five years, we can look at it again and reevaluate.”

The BLM’s preferred alternative would allow heli-skiing on eight specific areas near Silverton, totaling 14,183 acres. The disparity between the preferred alternative and Helitrax’s request came largely because of the more than 90 public comments the agency received when it first scoped for the project. While many of the comments supported the increase, others raised significant concerns over impacts that would be associated with more activity. Threats to lynx habitat, proximity to the Weminuche Wilderness and noise all made the list of major issues. However, the biggest consideration was impacts on people out earning their turns.

“Probably the biggest issue was competition for the snow with backcountry skiers who had skinned up,” Speegle said. “What we’d like to do is limit the number of areas that Helitrax could go to to eight and try and avoid those conflicts.”

Humphries countered that Helitrax’s track record is solid around Telluride, saying, “We’ve earned a level of trust with the backcountry community in the Telluride and Ophir area,” he said. “They know we’re not out there to steal their terrain and that we’re not going to be a detriment to that experience.”

With the release of a draft environmental assessment this week, the BLM is again taking public input through Dec. 3. Comments can be e-mailed to richard_speegle@blm.gov, faxed to 375-2331 or sent by mail to Richard Speegle, project manager, San Juan Public Lands Center, 15 Burnett Court, Durango, CO 81301. The draft assessment is available for review online at: www.fs.fed.us/r2/sanjuan/projects/projects.shtml.

Open space efforts rally into future

Local open space preservation efforts are coming into “focus” this week. A community forum, which was created to get the big picture on open space preservation in the region and plan for the future, is scheduled for Nov. 7.

Hosted by the City of Durango Open Space Advisory Board and the La Plata Open Space Conservancy, the event has been titled, “Bringing Area Conservation Efforts into Focus”

Kevin Hall, Durango Parks, Open Space and Trails manager,

said the forum is an effort to illustrate the lands that have already been conserved and protected and discuss plans for the future.

“There’s a lot going on in terms of open space preservation all over La Plata County,” Hall said. “With this forum, we wanted to bring all the entities together so we can get a holistic view and the big picture on open space around Durango.”

While open space has long been a buzzword in Durango, Hall added that its preservation is crucial for a variety of reasons. Permanent open space means that habitat, viewsheds, recreation and watershed are all potentially also preserved.

“The preservation forum isn’t just about acquiring and preserving land,” Hall said. “It’s about preserving the important qualities of open space. These things are essential to life as we know it in Durango.”

Durango and La Plata County have achieved many open space milestones in recent years and there is significant political will from both the city and county to keep the ball rolling. However, Hall also added that the threats are also gaining, and now is the time for action.

“There’s a growing recognition of the importance of preserving these key parcels in the county and around the city,” he said. “We’re understanding that these things have to happen soon before they’re lost opportunities.”

The Nov. 7 conservation forum gets under way at 5:30 p.m. at the Durango Recreation Center. The evening will include discussion of land preservation tools and partnerships. David Gann, of the Nature Conservancy, will present the keynote address, “Land Preservation: Protecting our Sense of Place.” For more information, contact 375-7300.

Fort Lewis takes national MTB title

Once again, Durango came out on top of the mountain bike world last weekend. Fort Lewis College cyclists enjoyed multiple wins and brought home the overall title from the Collegiate Mountain Bike National Championships in Banner Elk, N.C. 

Over the course of the weekend’s eight races, local riders enjoyed many visits to the podium. Benjamin Sonntag took first in the men’s cross country just ahead of his teammate, Adam Snyder. Sonntag also wrapped up a stellar weekend with a second in the short track. On the gravity side, Fort Lewis downhiller Cody Wilderman claimed first place in the men’s competition, and Sage Wilderman and Sarah Elsworthy took first and second in the women’s downhill. For the dual slalom competition, Sarah Elsworthy took home silver and BMX phenom Ashley Grubb got the bronze.

These finishes, along with several other fourths and fifths, gave FLC enough points to claim the overall title and cement the school’s position as the top national cycling powerhouse.

“We brought a very, very solid team and things went well for us,” said Fort Lewis College Coach Rick Crawford. “This is really what it all comes down to. There are a lot of teams getting into the mix these days, and that’s good to see. We hope for collegiate cycling to become ‘the’ development program for the pros.”

In the overall competition, Lees-McRae College, the competition’s host school, and the University of Colorado-Boulder came in at second and third.

– Will Sands



In this week's issue...

July 21, 2022
Wildlife success or deal with the devil?

Land swap approved in Southwest Colorado, but not without detractors

July 21, 2022
Tapping out

The latest strategy to save the San Luis Valley's shrinking aquifer: paying farmers not to farm

July 14, 2022
Hey, good environmental news

Despite SCOTUS ruling, San Juan Generating Station plans to shut down