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
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
“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
“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
|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
“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
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
“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.”