Heli-skiing takes off
Helitrax gets green light to expand near Silverton

Snow blows from atop a ridge on Red Mountain Pass last February. Telluride’s Helitrax will be coming to the San Juans near Silverton next year under a five-year agreement with San Juan Public Lands that gives them 300 days in the backcountry. Local skiers see it mostly as an agreeable compromise – Helitrax originally asked for 600 days./Photo by David Halterman

by Will Sands

Heli-skiing will have a much bigger presence in the San Juan Mountains next season. The Bureau of Land Management recently smiled on a proposal from Telluride Helitrax to expand the capacity of its operation in the backcountry around Silverton.

Helitrax is no stranger to the local backcountry. Courtesy of revolving one-year permits, the company has conducted a heliskiing operation in the region for more than 10 years.

Since 1995, Helitrax has conducted limited commercial helicopter skiing (35 to 50 service days a year) in the Alpine Loop area near Silverton. John Humphries, Helitrax program manager, explained that the company hasn’t had a bigger local presence for practical reasons. “The reason Helitrax hasn’t had more historical skier use in the Silverton area is that we’re a conservative company due to the regularly high-avalanche danger in the San Juans,” he said. “Our conservative nature and greater understanding of the avalanche danger in the terrain closer to the Telluride area has led us to historically ski closer to Telluride.”

Richard Speegle, recreation project leader for the BLM, commented that whenever Helitrax does ski around Silverton, the impacts have been light, and the company has been in good standing since 1995. Riding on this good track record, in 2006 Helitrax asked to substantially increase its heli-skiing offerings around Silverton, seeking a more permanent and expanded permit for accessing local skiing via helicopter.

The company proposed a 10-year permit and an increase in 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.”

However, the BLM came back at Helitrax with a compromise, authorizing a less ambitious expansion in its final decision, which was released this week.

“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 allows heli-skiing on eight specific areas, or pods, near Silverton. The terrain totals 13,611 total acres of relatively remote skiing. 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 several of the comments supported the increase, many 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 backcountry skiers 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.”

The BLM will reevaluate the permit after the five-year term and consider whether to up it to 10 years and/or add additional service days. In its decision, the agency wrote, “It is a balanced approach that reflects the public interest in heli-skiing as matched with the public’s desire to engage in quiet-use winter backcountry recreational activities.”

The compromise also did its best to keep Helitrax away from existing designated Wilderness and Wilderness Study Areas and limit overflights of the Town of Silverton.

Helitrax had a relatively lukewarm reaction to the agency’s decision to grant half of its original request. “Helitrax is thankful a decision has been released by the BLM and looks forward toward continuing to work with local communities to provide guided helicopter skiing, avalanche mitigation and first responder search and rescue services in the San Juans,” Humphries said.

Other reactions around Southwest Colorado indicated that the BLM may accomplish its goal of striking a reasonable accord.

Keith Roush, owner of Pine Needle Mountaineering and a backcountry enthusiast, commented, “The decision’s actually looking pretty good. I think the BLM has shown some restraint in not offering Helitrax terrain that’s often visited by backcountry skiers. In general, it looks like there will be few conflicts.”

Roush also praised the BLM’s decision to grant only a five-year permit to the helicopter-skiing operation. “Ten years is a long time, and ownership and patterns of backcountry use can easily change,” he said.

Amy Grogan, a former Silverton resident and backcountry skier, was an critical of the expanded permit when it was first announced. She acknowledged that the decision is a compromise and could have hit quiet users much harder. However, Grogan also remained concerned about potential, late-season conflicts, since many of the pods are located in areas popular for spring backcountry skiing.

“If Helitrax is going to be out there late in the season, that’s where everyone spring-skis, and there will be problems,” she said. “If they’re out of there, there shouldn’t be conflicts.”

Nonetheless, Grogan remained skeptical, noting that Telluride rather than Silverton will reap rewards from expanded heli-skiing in the region. “Those skiers are not going to be stopping and spending the night in Silverton,” she said. “They’re just coming in for the day, using the area and then going back to Telluride at night.”

Grogan also remained cautious about long-term consequences and impacts.

“Now that they have a permit, what are the real intentions?” she asked. “Maybe Helitrax is going to sell it off to someone else and then turn it into a really big operation. That kind of thing never gets out there until it’s too late.”

The BLM’s final decision is available for review online at: www.fs.fed.us/r2/sanjuan/projects/projects.shtml.